On the surface, it seems like the Pilgrim football team would like to forget last year ever happened. The Pats didn’t win a game, and they weren’t competitive in most of them.
But what the season lacked in wins it made up for in experience. Playing a contingent of mostly sophomores, Pilgrim struggled but helped its players come along gradually. One year later, with a team of mainly juniors, seven seniors and a few sophomores, the Pats are in a much better spot.
They’re still young, and there’s still some inexperience, but they’re also better.
“It’s a ton more settled,” Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor said. “Last year we went in, graduated 22 seniors and 20 of them started. There wasn’t a lot of experience. Looking back, you wonder how you could have done it different, but that senior class was so talented. We tried to build off last year, and that second half we were a much better team than the first half.”
The second half of last season, combined with an off-season of other sports – namely wrestling, which O’Connor also coaches – weights and a summer in the passing league have aided that progression to the point where this year’s product is much more refined.
In fact, the team has grown to a point that O’Connor has changed his schemes on both sides of the ball to help accommodate the difference in talent. Some new sophomores helped the situation too.
“It’s been going real good,” O’Connor said. “Everyone’s working hard. We’ve got a new offense, new defense put in. We’re working on it at least. They seem happy to be here.”
The biggest sign of cohesion with O’Connor’s group is the offensive line, where four players return as starters from a year ago. At the tackle spots, juniors Henry Cascella and Evan Broccoli are playing, while senior Jacob McMullen and junior Griffin Potter are handling the guard duties. Center is still up for grabs.
“Offensive line is still intact,” O’Connor said. “They look real good coming in, even after just five days of practice, because they’ve been together a year.”
Returning behind that line is junior quarterback Rob Quaine, who had his struggles last year but improved late and played well in the Thanksgiving game against Warwick Vets.
“He looks real sharp,” O’Connor said. “His confidence has come up and his maturity level. He’s grown a couple of inches.”
In the backfield with Quaine will be a group of rotating running backs, led by junior Hysom Sabet. Sophomores Owen Kelly and David McMullen are in the mix as well, as is senior Mike Turchetta, who ran quite a bit last season.
At tight end, senior Nick Burns is an imposing figure, as he may be the biggest player on the entire Pilgrim team.
“Real good hands,” O’Connor said of Burns. “Not the fastest tight end, but the kid can catch.”
At wide-out, seniors Zach Ponte and Rob Ciaramello could play, as could any of the running backs, but it’s not a huge position of emphasis given how much Pilgrim runs the ball.
On the other side of the ball, senior linebacker Sean Akinnusotu should be a force after a strong off-season in the weight room. Alongside him will be Jacob McMullen, who right now is the only two-way starter on the team.
“Defensively, we’ve got the linebackers that we’ve been missing,” O’Connor said. “The older kids all came out and we’ve got a couple young linebackers. We’re switching to more of a 4-4. It’s a modified 5-3, really.”
On the defensive line, junior Joe Borges, senior Dan Johnston and sophomore Nick Carpenter lead the way, although some of the offensive linemen like Potter, Broccoli and Cascella could get some time in that rotation.
Patrick Drake will play one of the end spots, while Ciaramello and Steven Medeiros are set in the secondary. David McMullen, Kelly and Sabet also may seem time out there.
For just a week into the preseason, Pilgrim already has a lot figured out.
“For this early in the season, we’ve never had this good of a picture,” O’Connor said.
Obviously, however, there is still a long way to go. The first day of actual hitting in full pads was Saturday, and the Injury Fund game isn’t until Sept. 7.
Plenty can still be decided between now, then and the regular season, which begins the following weekend.
“Once we go live, we’ll know more,” O’Connor said. “But we’ve got a basic outline of what’s going on.”
Still, one thing is for certain – Pilgrim is in a better spot now than it was at this time a year ago. No longer a team full of varsity rookies, the Pats expect to see the improvement on the field.
“A year of experience has helped,” O’Connor said. “They understand the system, they know what to expect of them. They’re all pulling in the same direction.”