2020-21 Globe Scholastic Awards:
Hard work, hands-off approach help Shawsheen to Markham Division 1 title
By Craig Larson Globe Staff,Updated October 16, 2021, 3:50 p.m.
BILLERICA — Stand alongside Al Costabile a few moments, particularly on a picturesque early October afternoon on the well-manicured grounds at Shawsheen Valley Tech, and his infectious enthusiasm, energy, and unrelenting dedication shine through.
He bleeds Purple, Black, and White.
In the midst of his 24th season as varsity football coach, and 17th as director of athletics for an all-in 21st-century vocational school serving 1,300 students from Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Tewksbury, and Wilmington, Costabile was chatting up teamwork.
Specifically, how Shawsheen’s faithful administrators, coaches, athletes — and supportive parents, too — made the 2020-21 school year happen in athletics, taking head-on the challenges presented by the pandemic from mid-September until the end of June.
Fielding 24 varsity sports, the Rams found a way to compete in all four MIAA seasons: Fall I, Winter, Fall II, and Spring. And they did so successfully, winning nearly 68 percent of their 157 regular-season games.
Al Costabile is in his 24th season as football coach and 17th year as athletic director at Shawsheen. BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF
Shawsheen was the most successful vocational athletic program in the state, Costabile’s crew finishing with a 104-45-5 record to capture the Globe’s Markham Division 1 title for large voke schools for the first time since 2016. The award is named after Walter Markham, a Lowell native who was responsible for initiating the concept of regional vocational and technical high schools in the state.
The Rams were one of 10 divisional winners for the awards — now in their 49th year — in which schools are ranked based on their regular-season win percentage. Scores are compiled and updated daily during the season through the Globe’s database at bostonglobe.com/sports/high-schools/.
“The administration was very supportive of our kids getting the chance to play sports,” said Costabile, while noting the importance of competition to the students’ mental and physical well-being, and the life lessons that can be taught. “It was a team effort. Everyone had to be on the same page.”
That started with following every COVID-19 protocol, masking up, contact tracing, and making more than a few sacrifices. Costabile called the school’s lead nurse, Maggie Joyce, unequivocally, his MVP.
Locker rooms were not made available, and students/parents were responsible for their own transportation to and from practices and games until the spring season.
“I would drive to an away game hoping everyone else would show up,” said boys’ soccer coach Tom Severo, who nonetheless directed the Rams to an 8-1-1 record and the Commonwealth Athletic Conference title with a 3-0 win over Essex Tech. That also happened to be his 400th career win, including his 30-year run as the girls’ coach at Billerica High.
“Success sometimes is measured with how you adapt to change,” Severo said. “Our success was based on that. When we got together as a team, we treasured those moments.”
The vocational component, and the commitment required from students to compete while working the alternating schedule of one week on the job and one week in the classroom, cannot be understated.
“Most of these kids are multisport athletes,” lauded Costabile, a whistle dangling from his mouth as he watched a recent football practice. “I have [players] that come in here dirty from construction sites . . . fishing wire in attics and basements . . . all kinds of jobs . . . they are not coming in having had a couple of free periods during the day. Coming in from hard work.”
Flexibility is a necessity.
Severo recalled receiving a call from one of his players, at 2:30 p.m., saying practice was not possible that day — he was installing an air conditioner on a roof in Boston. Chuck Baker runs his Monday hockey practices at 5:30 a.m., then his players head off to the working world.
Senior Darielle Wilson, a volleyball, basketball, and lacrosse player from Tewksbury who intends to be a nurse, starts her shift at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Woburn at 5 a.m. She calls competing in athletics for Shawsheen her “happy place.”
“I really feel part of a family here,” said Wilson, with a sentiment shared by many at the school. She plans to join the National Guard, in part to take care of her nursing degree. Her mother, Debra, as well as brothers Kenny (2020) and Zack (2021), are Shawsheen graduates.
Football captains Ayden Churchill and Ryan Dusablon, who also play hockey and lacrosse, thirst for the opportunity to be active, both in athletics and on the job. Churchill helps install water heaters, re-pipe houses, etc., for Gregory J. Ostroski Heating and Plumbing in Billerica. Dusablon, who wants to be a firefighter, as his father is in Cambridge, puts his hands to work remodeling homes for Maroney Construction. Fellow captain Shane Costello, an HVAC technician for Frank’s Heating in Tewksbury, likes the fact that he can go to school and make money at the same time.
“Everyone at this school is a hard worker,” Costello said.
The brick building at Shawsheen's football field was constructed by students, many of whom juggle their schedules to work during the day while also competing in athletics. BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF
And so moving forward through the year, Severo noted, everyone was all in.
“Everyone’s attitude was, ‘This is what we need to do [to compete],’ ” he said.
There were no shortage of highlights.
The golf team captured its 16th straight conference championship with a 9-0 finish. In his 24th year, Baker directed the boys’ hockey team to a share of its third straight CAC title, and the baseball team went 14-2 and earned the top seed in the Division 2 North tourney. Alex O’Reilly, a 2012 graduate who returned to the varsity girls’ lacrosse team at age 20 (as a senior at Bridgewater State), guided the Rams to a 9-4 finish. On senior night, she included the two seniors from the 2020 season who did not have a final season because of the pandemic.
But the most courageous and remarkable story line was on the wrestling mat this past spring, where 36-year coach Mark Donovan — who took the helm at age 19 — led his inspired Ram grapplers to their 13th straight CAC crown while battling Stage 4 bile duct cancer that had metastasized to his lungs.
Beloved and revered, Donovan died in his Tewksbury home last Sunday at age 55, a devastating loss for Shawsheen and the wrestling community.
“He was not a big man, but he was a giant,” Severo said. “He touched the lives of so many kids here.”
His passing touched so many at the school, because of the bond many have forged through involvement in the athletic program under the steady hand of Costabile.
“I would not be coaching for any other athletic director in the state,” Severo said.
Added Baker: “He makes everyone feel valued.”
O’Reilly credits Costabile’s hands-off approach for the program’s yearly success.
“The trust he has for us coaches and players alike is truly the root of it,” she said. “He is confident in our ability to build relationships with our athletes and to manage our teams however we see fit. He does not have a one-size-fits-all approach for the athletic programs and there is no handbook that tells us how we should coach our teams.”
Simply, Costabile lets his coaches and players go to work.
About the Markham award:
WALTER MARKHAM: Born and educated in Lowell, Markham was president and treasurer of the American Vocational Association for four years and was responsible for initiating the concept of regional vocational and technical high schools in the state.