#14 Connor Pace leads the Eagles out onto Cottone Field prior to the team's 21-14 victory over Platt last Friday night. Photo credit- Jo-Ann Campbell
Wethersfield football’s home opener last Friday night was an instant classic.
The Eagles outlasted Platt 21-14 in the team’s first game at Cottone Field since longtime head coach John Campanello retired after 14 successful years on the sidelines.
Enter Matt McKinnon, who filled the vacancy after serving as Campanello’s defensive coordinator for the last six seasons.
“The accountability, the offseason program, all the morals and values. Coach Camp had all of those things. He did a great job at showing me how to handle things,” said the first-year head coach, “I learned a lot from him. The first one is student-athlete. Everything is about being a student first and once you’ve had success in the classroom, you’re able to go out on a Friday night and represent the town.”
The principles of the program remain the same, yet McKinnon differs from his predecessor in personality.
His enthusiasm on the sidelines and intense passion for the game bleed over into his players and the workhorse coach has continued to run the defense, while also assuming the play-calling responsibilities on offense.
“I don’t sleep,” McKinnon joked about his expanded role, “[As a] head coach you have to make sure that all three phases of the game are ready to go and that the game plan is implemented in all three. I give the credit to my coaching staff, which are all phenomenal. When I was first hired I made sure that all of them came back.”
The McKinnon-era kicked off with a 49-0 victory at Hartford Public on Sept 13.
It was fitting that the defensive guru’s debut was punctuated with a shutout.
“We had a really good training camp and our senior class is in the top that I’ve seen for 11 years, with the attitude, the commitment, the dedication, and that family bond that they have with each other,” stated McKinnon, who played college football at Plymouth State University and learned the coaching ropes under John Ferrazzi at Sheehan High, “Now they’re bringing it onto the field and it definitely comes out in their energy.”
Two-way star Connor Pace, who had his 2018 season cut short due to a shoulder injury, is back and better than ever.
“It felt great to get back out there because it was a long offseason, a lot of work rehabbing the shoulder. It felt really good to get back to it,” said Pace, who caught two touchdowns and returned an interception for another in the opener, “We were ready to compete. We knew we had to go in and win and boost our confidence.”
Pace picked up right where he left off thanks to his rapport with senior quarterback Matt Silver.
“Honestly I feel we’ve always had a connection. Since freshman year we’ve been playing together and everything has just clicked. The more practice we get and the more reps we get, we’re only going to get better,” said Silver, who is now the fulltime starter after gaining valuable experience under center last fall, “Mr. McKinnon just took me under his wing in the offseason and I got a lot more experience. I made it my goal to become the rock for everyone so they can just fall back on me if they need to.”
“Matt has a lot more confidence this year. He’s fearless,” McKinnon said of his signal caller, “He got thrown into the fire last year and ended up winning a lot of games late in the season, including the big victory over Windsor.”
McKinnon’s roster is loaded with plenty of weapon on the outside, as well as equipped with the tools upfront.
Senior Jake Whitaker starts in the trenches of both sides the ball. Like Pace, he also missed a majority of last season after breaking his leg four games into 2018.
“It felt when I was injured that I was away from the team because I couldn’t be on the field. So this year I wanted to make sure that just because I was out for six weeks last year I’m back and I want to be a leader on this team and make sure I’m doing whatever I can to make this the best team as possible,” said Whitaker, who plays left guard and rotates between defensive end and nose guard on defense.
Whitaker helped pave the way for a rushing attack that amassed over 250 yards on the ground against Hartford Public.
“My sophomore year, my first year playing varsity, we could not run the football and I would go into school and everyone would say ‘you guys can’t run the football’ or ‘you guys gave up this many sacks’ and it was the worst feeling in the world. So going into a game like last week and rushing for over 250 yards was the best feeling in the world.”
Manning the middle defensively is Jacob Rivera, who has a nose for the football and brings a no-nonsense approach to a unit that has 8 of 11 starters returning from 2018.
“We all know what we have to do. Our mentality is that we feel we have the best team we’ve had in a while and we want to take over and beat anyone that we play,” said Rivera.
McKinnon likes the mental makeup of his middle linebacker, “He’s a three-year starter, when he’s on the field he makes us better and we become a better defensive unit. Marcus Nieves next to him is starting to fill that role too and in the future he’ll take over that role.”
Nieves showed up big in the thrilling win over Platt, coming up with a pair of fumble recoveries late in regulation. The junior recovered a fumble by Panthers quarterback Deaven Tanner to set up the game-winning touchdown and then recovered another loose ball when Platt muffed the ensuing kickoff with 1:44 to play.
Nieves first recovery led to the game-winning touchdown, a one-yard keeper from Silver, who also scored on a 47-yard scramble in the first half.
Silver, who threw an interception on the Eagles first possession, redeemed himself on his next pass attempt when he rifled a pass to Pace, who broke a tackle and scampered 80-yards for the game’s opening score.
Down 14-0, Platt battled back to cut the deficit in half when Tanner found Antwone Santiago on a 16-yard scoring strike late in the first half and then tied things up at 14 when Roberto Salas scored on fourth down from 2 yards out with 10:32 to play in regulation.
Even after Silver’s second score and muffing the late kickoff, the road Panthers had one more chance to make a defensive stand, but Silver and Pace put the game on ice with a gutsy third down conversion.
“Coach asked me if I was ready to win the game and I said ‘yes coach’. Matt threw me a perfect ball,” recalled Pace, who suffered his season-ending injury against Platt a season ago.
Facing third and long, the Eagles could have called a run play and forced Platt to use their final timeout, but McKinnon trusted his QB-WR tandem and the two didn’t disappoint. Silver lofted a beautiful pass down the right sidelines, which Pace pulled in between two defenders to seal the game.
“I went right into the huddle and told the team we're going for it and we’re going to throw it,” McKinnon said of the play.
An unsung hero in the victory over Platt was defensive end Nick Thompson, who had three sacks and four more tackles in the backfield. The junior gave credit to his defensive brothers.
“It’s my teammates, I love them. We play hard and we had a good week of practice. We play for each other, we love each other. I just couldn’t wish for another team.”
McKinnon said Thompson has emerged since getting forced into action as a sophomore a season ago, “Anything you throw at him, he wants more of it. He was huge for us tonight. I’m very proud of him.”
Following his first victory at home, McKinnon got a bucket of ice dumped on him.
It was the first of what should be many for a coach that is football 24/7 and understands the importance of a strong support system.
“The community is great, they support everything we do. They understand the mentality of football and what it takes to be a football player and it starts with them being role models for their kids,” McKinnon said of the parents of the over 90 kids that are currently playing football for the high school, “The youth coaches do a great job and they’re using the same offense and same defense and they do a great job implementing that. Even though we are a high school program, we’re actually a town program.”
Next up is another home game against powerhouse Daniel Hand this Friday, Sept 27 at 7 p.m.
The Tigers roll into town as back-to-back state champs and are currently on a 28-game winning streak.
It’ll be a tough task but win or lose McKinnon summed up the team’s mindset during his speech to his players following the latest victory.
“When you’re family, you’re glue. You might bend but you won’t break.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin