It’s been a slow building process for the Pilgrim football team the last few years. After a solid season in 2011, Pilgrim lost a huge graduating class and has been trying to regain its footing ever since.
The Patriots think this will be the year it finally happens.
The young players who took their lumps are veterans now, the talent is ready for a breakout and the schedule is a little kinder. It all adds up to a team poised to take a leap.
“We have very high expectations,” said head coach Tom O’Connor. “Almost our whole offense is back. We lost a lot on defense but we’re learning fast. I think we’ll be in every game. We’re looking to make the playoffs, and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”
Playoffs have always been the goal for the Pats, but the last few seasons forced expectations to be more modest. Pilgrim simply didn’t have quite enough, especially against a brutal slate in Division II-B, which produced all four of the D-II semifinalists in last year’s postseason.
Realignment has sent Pilgrim – and city rival Toll Gate – to Division III. Pilgrim’s last appearance at that level was in the mid-1990’s, when it had significant success in Class C.
The move now should allow both Pilgrim and Toll Gate the chance to rebuild, have some success and increase numbers, but the keys to good football remain the same, no matter the level.
“They’re good, quality football teams in Division III,” O’Connor said. “They’re well-coached, disciplined. We need to be in that realm.”
As they begin the quest, Pilgrim will look for a veteran offense to lead the way. There were bright spots on offense in a tough season last year, and most of them are back.
It starts under center, where senior Rob Quaine returns for his third year as a starter. His first year was tough, his second year was better and O’Connor hopes his third year reaches new territory. Quaine should be a threat to run or pass.
“I expect great things from him,” O’Connor said. “He’s grown, he’s developed, he’s worked hard. He went to some camps over the summer. He’s going to do well.”
The single biggest bright spot from last year is also back in the fold. Junior Owen Kelly will spearhead the running game after a breakout sophomore campaign that saw him quickly become Pilgrim’s top threat.
“He can definitely build on it,” O’Connor said. “He’s bigger, stronger, faster. The sky’s the limit with Owen and Rob back there.”
Senior Roger Anyango returns to the backfield after some solid performances last year. Junior Devon Maxwell and sophomore Toll Gate transfer Sean Cooney are battling for the fullback job.
Out wide, Pilgrim has juniors David McMullen and Darren Grant at receiver spots. Along with Kelly, they contributed last year as part of Pilgrim’s strong sophomore class. Garrison Potter, a sophomore, is also in the receiver mix.
It’s nothing new for Pilgrim to have some confidence in its skill players, but its offensive line remained a work in progress the last two years. This year, there’s even more confidence in the skill positions – and the offensive line has caught up. Four starters return and the fifth starter saw some time last year.
“This is the first year where our skill and our line are even in terms of their football progression,” O’Connor said. “We’re confident in them.”
The returning starters are seniors Joe Borges, Evan Broccoli, Henry Cascella and Griffin Potter. Junior Peter Johnston joins them.
“It’s a good group,” O’Connor said. “They’ve been together for a couple of years now, and they work hard.”
On the other side of the ball, there isn’t as much set in stone, but the Pats certainly have no shortage of options.
Among the leading returners are Grant and Broccoli. Grant was the team’s leading tackler last year from a linebacker spot, and Broccoli was the second-leading tackler at defensive end.
Borges and Johnston saw some time on the defensive line last year, as did Cascella. Griffin Potter will likely play linebacker this year. In the secondary, McMullen and Kelly return to the cornerback spots, with Anyango at safety.
A host of other players will fill in empty spots and battle the returners for starting jobs. Antonio Bolarinho, Nathan Brice, Nick Carpenter, Caleb Minton and Garret Sylvestre could push for time on the defensive line. Cooney, Maxwell and John Cooney are in the linebacker mix. Secondary spots are also up for grabs.
“There’s a lot of guys pushing each other,” O’Connor said. “Between today and tomorrow, we could have eight different guys out there.”
The defense has been a step behind the offense thus far, but the coaching staff still sees reasons for optimism.
“They’re hesitant right now but the attitude is there,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to hit some people.”
And if all else fails, Pilgrim will lean on its offense.
“We’re going to put some points on the board,” O’Connor said.
Whatever the formula, the Pats hope it leads to contention. They’ll be joined in Division III by fellow newcomer Toll Gate and by D-III holdovers Classical, East Greenwich, Hope, Lincoln, Middletown, Narragansett and Ponaganset. Mt. Pleasant and Moses Brown left D-III for D-II, while Burrillville and Tiverton dropped to D-IV.
The Pats don’t know exactly what they’ll be up against, but they’re focused now on their own first steps. Practices have been going well and the team is spending part of this week at a camp in Connecticut.
“It’s been a great experience,” O’Connor said. “The kids are bonding and really coming together.”
Pilgrim hopes it’s the start of a resurgence.
“The attitude has been phenomenal,” O’Connor said. “The kids see what we have here and they’re excited about it.”
Pilgrim’s season gets underway with an Injury Fund game against Moses Brown at Warwick Vets on Sept. 4. The non-league season opener is Sept. 12 against Smithfield. Pilgrim opens league play Sept. 26 at Lincoln.