The Pilgrim football team didn’t win a game of any kind last season, and the first sign that it might be a long fall came on the opening weekend, when the Pats were blown out by Division IV Smithfield.
A year later, Pilgrim has set the stage for what it hopes is a redemption campaign.
On the road against the Sentinels again in the non-league season opener on Friday, the Pats got 165 yards and three first-half touchdowns from sophomore back Owen Kelly and an efficient performance from quarterback Rob Quaine on their way to a dominant 36-6 victory.
It may have only been a non-league game against a D-IV team, and the competition will certainly get stiffer as the season wares on, but getting a win for the first time since early November of 2011 – and doing so in blowout fashion – was nothing to take for granted.
“I was happy,” Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor said. “The kids have been working hard, and I’m glad it paid off for them. It’s nice for the older kids and the younger kids to see what it’s like to win and get in the right atmosphere.”
Kelly was the star, breaking out in a big way in his first varsity game. He took the second carry of his career 72 yards for a touchdown on Pilgrim’s opening drive, and added touchdown runs of 49 and 1 yard as well.
With a quick first step and a veteran offensive line in front of him, Kelly was barely touched on any of his scoring runs.
“He’s a secret,” O’Connor said. “We’ve been trying to keep him under wraps for a while. He’s got real good vision, cuts at full speed and he’s a player. He wants the ball all the time. He had a good day. You give him a little crack and he’s going.”
He wasn’t a secret for very long. On second-and-18 just over a minute into the game, Kelly exploded through the line and kept going up the left sideline before cruising into the end zone.
“I was pretty nervous, I’m not going to lie,” Kelly said. “But after the first play, it all goes away and it’s fine.”
Pilgrim didn’t slow down from there. It moved the ball on its next possession before Kelly lost a fumble, yet Kelly scored on the 49-yard run on the first play of Pilgrim’s next possession, and Quaine ran the ball in from a yard out on the Pats’ fourth possession. That made it 20-6 after a quarter, as the Sentinels did manage to get on the board on a 46-yard end around by Isaiah Roman.
“We’ve got some work to do, but all in all it was a positive,” O’Connor said.
The Pats added a fourth touchdown of the first half on a one-yard run by Kelly with 7:45 remaining in the second quarter, with the drive spearheaded by a 34-yard completion from Quaine to Rob Ciaramello. Ciaramello was taken down just shy of the end zone, but Kelly got in on the next play.
Ciaramello led all receivers on the day with three catches for 95 yards. Quaine, meanwhile, threw for 178 yards on 6-of-8 passing.
“Quaine did a lot of hot reads today, on his own,” O’Connor said. “We threw the ball a lot more than we wanted to. They started blitzing everybody and he was picking up the wide-open receiver.”
Pilgrim’s defense showed up, too. Smithfield had just four first-half first downs, and the Pats also halted a drive midway through the second when Ciaramello intercepted a pass from quarterback Nick DiPaola.
In the second half, Smithfield got the ball first and marched all the way to Pilgrim’s 34-yard line in 12 plays, eating up the first 8:21 of the second half. The Pats buckled down, though, stopping Smithfield running back Brendan Correira on fourth-and-6 to take over on downs and stay firmly in control.
On the ensuing drive, Pilgrim eventually lined up to punt on fourth-and-5, but Quaine – also the team’s punter – noticed Ciaramello uncovered, called an audible and hit him for a 49-yard gain that kept the drive going.
While Pilgrim didn’t end up scoring on that possession, the play was yet another sign that the Pats have improved substantially from a season ago.
“It wasn’t a fake punt, but having Quaine as our punter pays dividends,” O’Connor said. “People have to get ready for it. It’s another thing they have to prepare for, and if they leave somebody uncovered he has the ability to audible to it.”
The Pats added a fifth touchdown on the day when sophomore David McMullen – who rushed for 55 yards on the day – scored from four yards out on double-handoff counter play. Quaine found Ciaramello for the two-point conversion to round out the scoring.
Smithfield did have one last chance to put some points on the board, as it drove down to Pilgrim’s 13-yard-line in the final few minutes, but Oluiwaseun Akinnusotu sacked Smithfield’s Nick DiPaola on fourth down to end the threat.
All in all, it was about as good a start as Pilgrim could have hoped for.
“On the bus ride here, the coaches and I were talking, saying, ‘This is huge,” O’Connor said. “‘If we get them to buy in totally and have faith in it, it makes the rest of the year that much easier.’”
The next step for Pilgrim is to get a division win, and it will have its first opportunity on Friday night against Shea at Max Read Field at 7 p.m.
The Raiders went 3-4 last year, including a win over the Pats.
“The next game against Shea, they’re a Division II opponent,” O’Connor said. “They’re going to come ready to play. They’ll be ramped up and they’ll be a lot faster than who we played today.”