There were no playoff victories, and there wasn’t even a Thanksgiving Day victory, but 2011 marked a change for the better for the Pilgrim football team.
The Pats went 3-4 in Division II-B, the first time that the program had won three league games in a season since winning six in 2004.
Now in his third year as Pilgrim’s head coach, Tom O’Connor is hoping that a new, younger group of players can stay on the path that last year’s group created, or at least laid the foundation for.
Still, it will be a challenge. With 22 seniors gone to graduation – 20 of whom saw legitimate playing time – there is little experience with which to carry the torch.
Pilgrim has only one starter back in the same position from last year, but does have a few others who saw some game action. The rest of the team will follow the lead.
“A portion of the team was here, and we’re trying to build on [last year], not throw it out the window,” O’Connor said.
The good news is that, because O’Connor is entering that third year, all the players on the team are familiar with the system.
Whether they played varsity, junior varsity or freshman football last season, they were running the same offense and the same defense. That makes a big difference when it comes to getting a varsity-deficient group up to speed.
“Young group that’s working really hard,” O’Connor said. “They’re picking up a lot of plays, fast, which is good. The system has finally kicked in – we’ve been with them long enough – where they know the verbiage, they know the terms. That’s helping out.”
Pilgrim has 10 seniors in uniform right now, to go along with a handful of juniors. The rest of the near 50-man team is sophomores.
Ready or not, plenty of sophomores will be on the field.
“The drop-off might come from adjusting to the speed of the varsity,” O’Connor said. “There will be a little learning curve on getting them up to speed. Stop thinking, just react. Know your rules, do your rules, everything goes together.”
The one returner is senior Gage Potter, who started at offensive tackle a season ago and will step back into that role this year.
Junior Luke Verrier – a converted lineman is the likely candidate to handle the fullback duties, and that’s a familiar script for Pilgrim under O’Connor.
Two years ago, he converted lineman Jon Stevens to fullback, and Stevens went on to become the team’s top offensive option. Last season, he converted brothers Alex and Andrew Leddy, both of whom had been linemen, into the primary ball carriers, and they both became offensive focal points.
“We’ve got the same setup,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got a lineman who converted to fullback for us.”
Beyond that, there’s still a lot to sort out.
Sophomore Rob Quaine is battling junior Nick Burns for the starting quarterback spot vacated by the graduated Lee Verrier, and it’s a full-on competition at this point in the preseason.
“We’re wide open,” O’Connor said.
At the two running back spots, there are any number of candidates. Davien Brown, Zach Ponte and Chris Fitta are all vying for playing time at the “four-back” spot, which will be a running back stationed directly in the backfield. For the “two-back” spot, the competition right now is between Ponte, Hysom Sbbet and a few others.
Ponte and Fitta are also competing at the wide receiver spot, while sophomore Kevin Blanchette will likely see heavy playing time at that position.
On the line, nothing is set in stone. Porter’s brother Griffin is in the fold, as is Nathan Brice, Austin Lemire and Jacob McMullen.
That group – or whoever ends up playing on the line – will be vital to Pilgrim’s success, as the Pats typically run the ball between the tackles on the majority of their plays.
For anything to get done on offense, the running game will have to be successful.
“We’re still in a pound the ball mode, and use play-action for our passes,” O’Connor said. “We have some plays where we’ll set up in obvious passing downs, but 90 percent of our passes are in play-action. We’ve got to establish the run for the others to work.”
Defensively, O’Connor sees Sbbet as someone who could make a big impact in his first season contributing on the varsity.
Playing linebacker, Sbbet should headline a group that includes Nik Ford, Jose Hutnack and Oluwaseven Akinnusotu.
“We’re going to mix up our defenses a lot this year and Hysom is going to be a big key to it,” O’Connor said. “He’s got a nose for the ball and he’s fast.”’
Hutnack was in the rotation the defensive line last year, but will slide back into the middle linebacker position this fall.
In the secondary, Fitta, Brown, Steven Medeiros and Mike Kelly are all competing for starting spots.
As a team, the Pats are still trying to gauge what they can accomplish, but they’re certainly going to try to use last year’s step forward as an example of how to improve.
The last thing they want to do is take a step back.
“The bar for us is to improve every game,” O’Connor said. “We can’t kill ourselves. We can’t have the turnovers, the false starts, the penalties. The biggest goal is to be disciplined. Don’t give them extra downs.”
Pilgrim opens its season with an Injury Fund game on September 1, before starting regular season play the next Friday, September 7 at home against Smithfield in a non-league contest at 7 p.m.