By David Willis
---- — For Andover senior Matt Sutliff, the toughest rival he has faced in his football career is the man he takes on just about every day in practice, teammate and close friend Ben Hartford.
“I’ve been playing against Ben since we were on different teams in the AJFL (Andover Junior Football League) when we were kids,” Sutliff said with a laugh.
“We are always matching up on the field and we are always competing and messing around. We’ll smack talk and call each other jerks, but we are good buddies.”
The two may enjoy a friendly rivalry on the practice field, but on game day it is opponents they are intimidating as the anchors of the Andover High front, with Sutliff the leader off the offensive line and Hartford the centerpiece of the defensive front.
The two massive linemen will lead Andover High into battle on Thanksgiving Day when the Golden Warriors travel to Lawrence Stadium to take on MVC and Division 1 North champion and archrival Central Catholic at 10:30 a.m.
“We’re ecstatic,” Hartford said. “This is the biggest game of the year for us and we are going to go out and give it 100 percent. We want to show that we are as good as any team in the playoffs.”
The blind side
Matt Sutliff may be trusted with protecting the blind side for Andover QBs Oliver Eberth and E.J. Perry IV, after doing the same for record-setting C.J. Scarpa a season ago, but the left tackle wasn’t always considered an elite offensive lineman.
In fact, as a middle-schooler, Sutliff was cut from the AJFL eighth-grade top travel team.
“I was put on the B team as an eighth-grader,” he said. “I was really disappointed. But I remember my dad saying to me, ‘Use this day to drive you for the rest of your football career. Remember this day and use it to become the best offensive lineman you can be.’ It has been motivation since then.”
In his first high school football season, he was a member of the freshman team, then as a sophomore he was on the offensive and defense line for the JV team.
Then, one year later, after a growth spurt that saw him grow 5 inches and add 30 pounds of muscle, Sutliff found himself a key member of last year’s MVC Division 1 title team.
“I remember going to camp and thinking, ‘All this hard work has to pay off,’” he said. “To earn the starting left tackle jump was really nerve-wracking. I was protecting C.J. Scarpa’s back. But I got used to it and it was really exciting.”
As the Golden Warriors’ offense rolled to record-setting numbers, confidence quickly built in Sutliff.
“Sutliff is big and really tough,” his running back, Jack Sylvester, said. “Every game he brings it. He’s also a little crazy and likes to tell me every time he gets a pancake block. He’s great to run behind.”
After an offseason of working out alongside Hartford, and now standing 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Sutliff stepped right back into that position this fall as the stalwart of the offensive front.
“He is the best offensive lineman that we have,” Hartford said. “Last year was his developmental year, and he worked so hard to be the best he could be and has done great. He has been huge.”
The articulate senior with the 275-pound bench press, who is looking at schools such as Hobart to play college football, has also been a mentor to the other linemen.
“Sutliff is our leader,” Tully said. “He brings us all together, and if we have questions, he is the guy that will listen and help.”
The tackle machine
When asking teammates about defensive lineman Ben Hartford, a three-year varsity starter, one word kept being used.
“Hartford is a beast,” Tully said. “He is just an animal. He is out there making tackle after tackle. I have to block him a lot in practice and it is rough.”
A 6-foot-4, 240-pound monster, Hartford has been using his size to his advantage, wherever it came from.
“I have always been a big guy,” Hartford said. “But that confuses people because my dad is only about 5-foot-8, so people wonder where my height came from. I guess it’s my uncles.”
After playing offensive line mostly growing up and on the JV team as a freshman, Hartford broke into the varsity lineup during his sophomore year at both defensive and offensive line despite missing time with a concussion.
His breakout season came last year, when he made 42 tackle and was fourth on the team in sacks with 3.5.
Hartford has been even better this season. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks and added 68 tackles, often disrupting opposing attacks.
“He has progressed so much as a player over the years,” linebacker Will Eikenberry said. “Now he just dominates the field. He is big and his physicality is key, especially against teams like Central Catholic.”
Along with a bench press that sits at 315, Hartford is also a star in the classroom. Last year, he earned three A’s, two A-minuses, a B-plus and three B’s while taking a challenging workload. He scored a 28 on his ACT, the equivalent of a 1,260 on the two-tier SAT.
“Practice some nights starts at 5:30 p.m.,” Hartford, a defensive tackle, said. “I’ll get home at 8:30 or 9 p.m. and study two to three hours and go to bed at midnight or 1 a.m. You feel it most when you are starting your homework or just getting up. You’re tired and exhausted. Then you have to do it all over again.”
But the workload hasn’t overwhelmed the NESCAC recruit. A few of his biggest games include an 11-tackle day against North Andover and a 12-tackle outing against Chelmsford.
Now he hopes his career ends with a bang.
“This will be my last high school game, no doubt,” he said. “There is nothing after this, so we have to end in style. The turkey will taste a lot better with a Turkey Day title.”