Tim O’Sullivan column: All eyes on Niyomugabo at Merrimack Valley
Quarterback Ivan Niyomugabo has a scholarship offer from UNH on the table entering his senior season at Merrimack Valley.
Merrimack Valley quarterback Ivan Niyomugabo is a double threat, both passing and running the ball.
The officials were supposed to be protecting the quarterbacks. But when it came to Merrimack Valley’s Ivan Niyomugabo, the striped shirts changed from protectors into spectators.
The Pride traveled to Monadnock on Friday and before the scrimmage, the coaches and officials decided to use a quick whistle when it came to plays on the quarterback in order to prevent any preseason injuries. When Niyomugabo turned a broken play into a 16-yard gain, however, no whistles were heard until the MV senior was taken to the ground.
“We talked to the referee after the play and asked about the quick whistle,” Merrimack Valley Coach Jim Coll said. “He said, ‘I know, I know, but when he got running, I just kind of watched him and forgot what was going on.’ That’s the kind of player Ivan is.”
Niyomugabo has been MV’s starting quarterback since midway through his freshman year. Last season, he passed for
1,654 yards and 15 touchdowns, ran for 783 yards and 11 touchdowns, was named Division II First Team All-State and led the Pride to a 7-3 record and the first playoff appearance in the team’s 12-year history.
“Our attendance at football games has always been outstanding, even when we were getting standing ovations just for getting a first down,” Merrimack Valley Athletic Director Kevin O’Brien said. “But the enthusiasm last year was different. Making the playoffs was like our version of waiting for the Red Sox to win the World Series. It was just so exciting for everyone.”
That first trip to the playoffs started poorly as Portsmouth jumped to a 21-0 lead against the Pride. But MV rallied late and nearly pulled off the upset before falling, 37-34. It was an admirable end to an historic season, but it wasn’t enough for Niyomugabo and the Pride.
“That playoff loss really left a bad taste in our mouth and we want to get rid of that,” Niyomugabo said. “We’ve thought about it all offseason and the biggest thing we’ve been preaching ever since then is we want to be better than we were last season.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Niyomugabo didn’t waste any time getting to work on that goal. He joined a Crossfit program as soon as the season ended to complement the team’s weight lifting regimen and he ran outdoor track in the spring.
“He works so hard,” O’Brien said. “In my 28 years here, I can’t think of any other kids who have worked harder, I don’t care what sport they played, to make themselves as good as they can be like Ivan has.”
Once the summer hit, Niyomugabo traveled up and down the East Coast going to camps at various colleges like Villanova, Maryland, UConn, UMass, Central Connecticut State and New Hampshire.
“Every other weekend I was in a different state, so it got pretty hectic,” Niyomugabo said. “I feel like I always have room for improvement in my mechanics and this offseason I made some changes there as well as with my footwork, shoulder level, little things like that to push me even further.”
He recorded the best 20-yard shuttle time, 4.15 seconds, at the N.H. Football Showcase. He’s run the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds. He can uncork a 60-yard throw from the pocket and can put the ball on a dime on the run. He can dissect defenses with his arm or his feet.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of kid that you’re going to see playing quarterback at this level,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to discourage any little kids out there, but Ivan just does things that other kids can’t do.”
Niyomugabo has also mastered the no-huddle, running-quarterback, spread offense that is sweeping through college and high school football. Dave Jackson installed that system when he took over the MV program in 2011. Jackson resigned in May, but Coll, who has been coaching in the program since 2004, has no intention of changing the offense. And the new head coach knows where to go with any questions about the scheme.
“Ivan has such a command of the offense that he’s correcting the coaches,” Coll said. “He’s an absolute joy and a pleasure to coach. He’s a phenomenal kid.”
Add that all up and it’s easy to see why both UNH and Central Connecticut have made Niyomugabo scholarship offers. He will make official visits to both schools in early September and plans to make a decision later that month.
Football will have a lot to do with his final decision, but Niyomugabo also will take academics into consideration. If not, he’ll risk the ire of his parents.
Emmanuel and Gaudiose Niyomugabo moved from Rwanda to Manchester in 2001 in order to provide more opportunities for Ivan and his younger sister, Aubine. Education has always been the top priority for the Niyomugabo parents, as they showed two years ago when they kept Ivan off the lacrosse team because he had gotten a C+ in a class. He was eligible to play by school standards, but not by his parents’ standards.
“My grades are good, I’m on the honor roll now … that is a big part of it for me and it really does keep me focused and helps with my work ethic,” Ivan said. “It translates to football with all the offseason work and everything like that.”
Before Niyomugabo takes his football and academic talent and ambitions to the college level, he has some unfinished business at MV.
“Most of the goals I’ve set are team goals, but I definitely want to be a big part of bringing our team deep into the playoffs, and I want to rush for over 1,000 yards and throw for over 1,000 yards,” Niyomugabo said. “But, like I said, it’s really about the team goals and we want to get back into the playoffs and make a run.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)