Assistant coach John Evans walks the sidelines as head coach Rich Moran, behind him, yells encouragements to his team, the Dorchester Bears, in a game against Madison Park High School at White Stadium on Friday. The Bears beat the Cards, 31-14, marking the end of a 5-5 season. Photo by Nate Leskovic
Creating unity on a football team that represents three different schools in one building has been a challenge for Dorchester Bears Coach Rich Moran.
When he took over the team four years ago, he wanted to change the team's focus from the parts to the whole, so one of his first moves was to enlarge the team's bear head logo to include the entire animal.
"It's been the most difficult part of the job," said Moran, who lives just down the street from the old Dorchester High School building. "It's natural for the schools to be competitive. They had to get rid of that mentality and start thinking they were the Bears."
That unity was doubly stressed over the past two months as Noonan Business Academy and Academy of Public Service (APS) students successfully fought to save their schools from closure this fall during hearings for the superintendent's system-wide reorganization. Students repeatedly cited the football team, and other athletics programs at what is now known as the Dorchester Education Complex, as arguments against closure.
Athletic Director Bobby Belle said the initial task of creating sports teams out of the two schools and the TechBoston Academy was like merging the Yankees and the Red Sox, but the remarkable success has benefited the entire school. In a building where you can be suspended for climbing stairs and getting caught on the wrong floor, sports help bring the students together and leave less room for conflict.
"It's the sports and the camaraderie that's really pulled everything together," he said. "Everyone has a sense of belonging. All of the sports in the complex since the merger have done extremely well."
Star running back DeJon Berment, a senior and league-leading rusher, had three touchdowns in the football team's commanding 31-14 win over Madison Park in the season-ender last Friday. He said without the multi-school teams there would be more drama and fights.
"It helps us get to know each other better," Berment said. "Even people who aren't on the team get a chance to know someone else through friends on the team."
"I don't see it as different schools," said junior Anthony Bennett. "It's just a matter of who comes out and plays tough."
Though Dorchester finished this year's football season with a 5-5 record, Moran can enter the off season confident the budding legacy of his and his players' hard work will continue. After student, parent and teacher protest, closure plans were scrapped. The Noonan and APS will now merge and remain at Dorchester High.
Moran, who took Hyde Park to the high school Super Bowl before aiming his efforts in Dorchester, said building a strong program takes time. When he first arrived on the scene, there were only about 15 students on the team. By the end of the season this year there were 42.
Winning helps too, and last year the team went 7-2, losing to Brighton in the city championship.
Traditions are key as well, according to Moran. The winners of an annual inter-squad scrimmage get rights to a beaten-up, taped-together, but treasured trophy. A portable, solid metal bear sculpture gets good-luck rubs from players on game nights. And coach Moran has launched a homecoming game and dance as well as an annual match against Latin Academy for the Mason Cup, in honor of former Bears coach Joe Mason and his more than 30-year career and Hall of Fame membership.
Moran even took the team to play Valley Forge Academy near Philadelphia to get a taste of what big-time Division I ball is about.
"We got rocked, but I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything," he said.
Moran admits there are challenges for the team. Most of his players have no experience playing football in the recreational leagues before high school and often need help with game fundamentals. It's also not uncommon to lose players due to trouble on the streets. Moran said others are wary of playing because they make an easy target coming from, going to and playing on the field every day.
Assistant Coach John Evans - also coach of the boys' Bears basketball team that made the state tournament last year - envisions the growing athletics program picking up widespread support and having a positive neighborhood impact, perhaps even reducing the tensions that sometimes keep students from playing.
"Bear pride and athletics can really help this community," he said. "We come together when we come out here to the field."