MADISON — When Nick Morales carries the football, he thinks about that night in January 2013 and the aftermath.

That night, two and a half years ago, Morales and his family lost their home to a fire. Immediately, the people of Madison came to the aid of the Morales family. Morales and his siblings quickly had clothes and food. Madison had Morales’ back.

Now a junior at Madison Area Memorial High School, Morales is one of the top runners in the Class C North Big Ten Conference. Every carry, every yard, every touchdown, every win, is a thank you from Morales to his community.

“They supported me, they helped out my family, and they just did everything they could to make sure I got back on my feet. They made sure I didn’t become a troubled kid,” Morales said before Wednesday’s practice. “It means a lot to me. Everyone at the school, from junior high up, showed they care for me and my family. I’ve never been able to say thank you enough. Playing my heart out is my way of giving back.”

On Saturday at 1 p.m., Madison (4-4) will host Foxcroft Academy (4-4) in a regional quarterfinal game. It’s the first home playoff game for the Bulldogs since 1995 and Morales is one of the big reasons for Madison’s success this season.

“The kid, (Morales) works hard every day. He’s coachable. He’s one of the first guys off the field asking me ‘Coach, how did I look (at the) point of attack? Were my fakes good?’ He’s very conscientious about what he does,” Madison coach Scott Franzose said.

In the regular season, Morales ran for 1,053 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging nearly 8 yards per carry. Morales also caught 10 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown. As a sophomore last season, Morales saw some time in the Bulldogs’ backfield, but was behind a pair of seniors, Cody Soucier and Jordan Curtis, on the depth chart. Coming into this season, Morales knew his role would expand, but he wasn’t sure how.

“With the weight lifting program we did this past year, that got me ready for it. I put on some muscle, I gained a lot and made sure my body was ready for this fall. I knew a new role was coming for me,” the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Morales said. “It’s exciting. I like the pressure put on me. I wouldn’t be able to do it without the full offense as a whole. The linemen, and Chase (Malloy, Madison’s quarterback), and the wide receivers doing their part, it’s not really about me. It’s about getting the offense going. … I just went in thinking I was going to do whatever Coach (Franzose) needs me to do.”

“Coming into the season, we really looked at him as our No. 1, our primary ball carrier. We’re a two-back set, Briar Edgerly really complements him well,” Franzose said. “Nick’s really taken on the load. Last year, we used him in a complementary role, but it wasn’t a matter of lack of talent. It was more playing behind two very good seniors. We came in thinking hopefully this junior year was going to be a breaking out point for him.”

Morales opened the season with 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 35-18 win over Oceanside in Week 1. In a 33-12 win over upcoming playoff opponent Foxcroft the following week, Morales ran for 158 yards and four touchdowns.

Morales ran for more than 150 yards four times in the regular season. Morales and Franzose agree that field vision is his strength as a runner.

“He has an innate ability to make people miss. He does it in the pass game, he does it in the run game. He anticipates very well,” Franzose said. “He’s a downhill zone runner. You can teach those guys, but it’s really hard to teach. They see things before they happen. I think that’s really his greatest asset.”

Morales puts the skill simply.

“I see holes well,” Morales said. “First, I make sure I find the hole so coach doesn’t yell at me. Then, as soon as I get through the hole, my first thing is to look straight ahead, then to the inside. I try to look for the cutback lane and once I get to the cutback lane it’s harder for them to locate me. I’m a little shifty.”

Perhaps at no time in the season was Morales’ elusiveness on display more than in Madison’s 42-0 win over Waterville on Oct. 2. Late in the first quarter, Morales busted up the middle for a 73-yard touchdown run. On the Bulldogs’ next possession, early in the second quarter, Morales turned a short pass from Malloy, who scrambled from right to left to buy time, into one of the most exciting plays of the season. The play went for a 61 yard touchdown pass. Morales finished the game with 231 yards of offense and three touchdowns.

There’s more to running the ball than making people miss, and Morales knows that. He’s working on lowering his shoulder into would-be tacklers when the need arises.

“I’ve actually tried to work on that a lot. When we need short yardage, I just tell myself ‘Cover the ball, put your head down, and go,'” Morales said.

Added Fanzose: “A lot of people may look at him, see him on film and think ‘This kid can move.’ He has speed, but he runs hard. A lot of times, he’s fighting for that extra third or fourth yard, a lot of guys trying to bring him down. You’ve got to admire the toughness. Honestly, he’s the most complete back I’ve seen since I’ve been here, hands down. Tough, fast, smart.”

Morales knows Madison’s recent football history. Last season’s trip to the playoffs, which ended with a 20-12 loss at Belfast in the quarterfinals, was the first time the Bulldogs reached the playoffs in almost two decades. Saturday’s home game is huge, the next step in reviving a program that hasn’t won a state title since 1994.

“A lot of the season, I thought about how we struggled, and I thought about, what I do this year isn’t for me, it’s for the team and for the town,” Morales said. “This town’s done a lot for me. This is my way of paying back to them. Make it so we’re not the 1-7 teams. We’re a playoff team.”

Morales hopes by playing well on Saturday, he can give more thank yous to the town that picked him and his family up when they needed it.

“I hope everyone on the team realizes how special we are and how special a win would be Saturday,” Morales said. “It’s the second season now, so we need to bring it.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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