Quarterback raises hopes at Merrimack Valley
Every now and then a player comes along who can transform a football program. Junior quarterback Ivan Niyamugabo may be the player who turns Merrimack Valley Regional into a Division II contender.
Niyamugabo came to this country at the age of 3, his parents escaping the violence of their native Rwanda and seeking to give their children a chance at a better life in America. After a year in Manchester, the family settled in Penacook, the Concord village where Merrimack Valley is located.
Ivan took to football early, playing on a Pop Warner team at age 7. It didn’t take long for him to stand out.
“I have been aware of Ivan since the third grade,” said Kevin O’Brien, Merrimack Valley’s director of athletics.
A talented runner, Niyamugabo set himself apart with his passing ability.
“He can throw the football as well as anyone I’ve seen,” said O’Brien.
But when Niyamugabo arrived at Merrimack Valley, the Pride’s limited and experienced lineup wasn’t ready to fully utilize his skills. He started at QB his first two seasons, but Merrimack Valley entered this year with a 14-game losing streak.
“He was ahead of his time,” O’Brien said.
Enter new head coach Dave Jackson, who brought to Merrimack Valley a resume that includes stints as an assistant at Manchester Memorial High, Nashua High North and St. Anselm College. A believer in the read-option offense popularized by Philadelphia Eagles coach and New Hampshire native Chip Kelly, Jackson increased Niyamugabo’s on-field decision-making responsibilities, freeing him to take full advantage of his athletic skills.
“He’ll be running the kind of system you see in college,” Jackson said of his QB before last Saturday’s season-opening game at John Stark Regional in Weare. “He’ll have to make reads, call signals. He’s got a lot on his plate for a junior.”
Based on what he did against John Stark, it appears Niyamugabo can handle it.
Playing a little more than a half, the 6-foot, 1-inch, 180-pound QB completed 12 of 18 passes for 214 yards with four touchdowns and an interception, and carried the ball five times for 74 yards with another TD as the Pride roared past the Generals, 48-26.
It wasn’t a one-man show, of course. Merrimack Valley’s largely no-huddle offense gave John Stark fits, with Niyamugabo leading a strong supporting cast, including Tucker Burt (a 38-yard TD run on the first play from scrimmage) and Cole Martin (3 TD catches).
“He’s got a big tight end in Ryan Head, great receivers like Cole Martin, Blak Gaboriault, Caleb Tipton ... We have depth at receiver and the ability to go fast” Jackson said.
Niyamugabo himself came back faster this year, thanks largely to some rigorous offseason work, and also became a team captain.
“I like the role of being the leader,” he said. “I like to lead by example.”
He also likes that Jackson is trusting him more to make decisions at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of what he sees on the field.
And he loves football. When he’s not playing the game, he’s often studying it, frequently watching online videos of the quarterbacks he hopes to emulate.
“I like Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III ... I try to take elements of their play and apply it to my game,” Niyamugabo said.
Hoping to play college football, Niyamugabo has attended camps at the University of New Hampshire and UConn.
He’s also attracted interest from area prep schools, but, he says, he has no plans to leave Merrimack Valley before finishing his senior season.
“I don’t want to quit my team,” he said. “I want to play for my home town.”