All losses weren’t equal for the Pilgrim football team last year, even if there were more than a few of them along the way.
The Patriots went winless in league play during the 2010 campaign, but that 0-7 mark doesn’t tell the whole story. There was gradual improvement, as Pilgrim lost its opening game 40-0 to Woonsocket, but lost its final two games by just a combined 10 points.
That gave the Pats and head coach Tom O’Connor something to build on going into the offseason, but it also raised the bar. Coming close at the end of last year showed that Pilgrim has what it takes to contend. Now it plans on doing it.
“Expectations are high,” O’Connor said. “Last year, at the end of the season, we started competing with everybody. This year, we’re going to start looking for wins. It’s no longer acceptable just to compete. We’re going to try to put some W’s up on the board.”
That late-season surge a year ago would mean virtually nothing if it was accomplished by a senior-laden group. Instead, however, it was driven by underclassmen, making Pilgrim now a veteran team with plenty of experience.
It graduated only three players off its defense, and the offense is largely in tact as well.
“The kids are working hard,” O’Connor said. “They’re coming together. We’ve got a lot of seniors, and they’re leading the team. We’re way ahead of last year.”
Also a factor in the team’s newfound optimism is that O’Connor is now in his second year. His blueprint is already all over the program, and little time had to be wasted on installation once camp opened this year.
And, for the first time as coach, O’Connor was at the helm during the offseason. Because of that, it was much more structured, and it included help from Northeast Sports Training (NEST), which helped the team get into better shape.
“Taking over late (last year) kind of hurt us a little bit,” O’Connor said. “This year, we put the work in in the offseason. The kids went to NEST, and they had a trainer. We’re stronger than we were last year, and intelligence-wise we’re right where we need to be.”
Under center for the second consecutive season will be senior Lee Verrier, who won the job last year in camp.
While he was largely in the game just to hand the ball off last year – O’Connor estimates Pilgrim ran the ball around 95 percent of the time – he should become more of a focal point within the offense this season.
“His technique has improved and he’s gotten a little bit bigger, stronger,” O’Connor said. “He’s throwing the ball real well. He can throw the deep ball. We added that threat to our offense this year.”
On the ground, the team no longer has the power running of Andrew Marks and Jon Stevens, but it’s hoping to get similar production from converted lineman Melvin Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is nearly 250 pounds, giving the team a massive option at fullback.
“He was a lineman last year,” O’Connor said. “He came in 30 pounds lighter. He’s 250 (pounds) and he can run like a bull.”
The team also returns senior running back Carl Sjogren, who was a big contributor out of the backfield a season ago.
Out wide will be senior Vinny DeVito, a returner from last year, along with Mike Mallozzi and junior Kevin Blanchette.
Those three give Pilgrim strong receiving options, something it hopes to use heavily to its advantage.
“We’ve got a couple more skill players who can catch the ball, so we’re going to spread out the field a little bit and throw the ball more than we did last year,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully it works out.”
On the line, senior twins Alex and Andrew Leddy are mainstays at guard, while junior Austin Lemire is playing center. Sophomore Andrew Swain and junior Dylan Gardner are currently the tackles.
The early returns have been good on the entire offense, especially the line.
“We finished putting in the blocking schemes for the linemen, and already it’s paying dividends,” O’Connor said. “When we went ones against ones on Saturday, we were actually opening some holes.”
On the other side of the ball, Pilgrim no longer has Marks, Stevens or third-team all-division cornerback Shane Allen, but it does have players who are willing to step in to those voids and a group of others with a year’s worth of experience to build on.
The Pats are planning on running a 5-3 base defense, with some 5-2 and a 5-2-monster look.
Playing the majority of the time on the line in all of those groupings will be seniors Chad Jackman, Myles Hector, William Grossi, Jonathan Korry and Sjogren, although others are expected to rotate in.
The Leddys will hold down the linebacking spots in the two-backer formations, while the team is in the process of determining a middle linebacker for three-backer sets.
On the corners will be DeVito and senior Anthony Souza, with senior Shane Kelly playing safety.
“Defensively, we lost three kids,” O’Connor said. “We have people to replace them. It’s still hurts, any time you lose anyone who was a leader, but we have kids who already know the positions.”
On special teams, O’Connor thinks Mallozzi will handle both the punting and the kicking.
And if the Pats, as a whole, continue their upward trend, they’re hoping 2011 finds a place as their first season with a winning record since 2004.
“We’re more of a family than we’ve ever been,” O’Connor said. “We support each other and we’re making great strides.”
Pilgrim will play an Injury Fund game against Hendricken on September 2, before opening the season the following Saturday, September 10, with a non-league game at Classical. Its first league game is September 17 at Woonsocket.