football Tis better to receive
NEW CANAAN — Quintin O’Connell was preparing for New Canaan’s showdown with Shelton in the Class LL football quarterfinals on Tuesday night when he received some words of wisdom from linebackers coach Jason Miska.
“Play like a champion,” Miska said, “and we’ll win this game.”
O’Connell and the Rams made those words ring true.
It was a record-setting night for O’Connell when No. 8 New Canaan won a slugfest with top-seeded Shelton, 42-34, and advanced to the state semifinals for the 14th straight season. The senior co-captain had 14 receptions for 172 yards and three touchdowns, and set three new program marks, surpassing the legendary Pete Demmerle in two categories, and current defensive coordinator Chris Silvestri in another.
The school records are part of O’Connell’s interesting year, which has featured a phone call from Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, a visit with the Wolverines and, eventually, the signing of a National Letter of Intent to play lacrosse at the University of North Carolina.
New Canaan head football coach Lou Marinelli, who has coached numerous great receivers, called O’Connell the Rams’ “go-to guy.”
“He’s a guy you know you can count on; he’s a big-play guy and he makes things happen,” Marinelli said. “Against Shelton, he was outstanding. He’s grown as a captain and he’s our go-to guy. He’s been our leading receiver sophomore, junior, and now senior year. He and (quarterback) Drew (Pyne) — those two have magic together.”
That magic has helped move New Canaan (9-2) into the Class LL semifinals against No. 5 Fairfield Prep (10-1). The two teams will clash at 12:30 p.m., Sunday, at Rafferty Stadium at Fairfield University.
It’s quite an improvement from last week, when the Rams were facing a do-or-die game against rival Darien on Thanksgiving. New Canaan won the Turkey Bowl, 17-14, and is now one step away from a state final.
“It’s been an unbelievable week,” O’Connell said. “What people don’t see, and what we’ve been preaching in the huddle, at practice and in the locker room, is it’s been the playoffs for us since the middle of October. We’ve had our backs against the wall since (the loss to) Greenwich. It made the Turkey Bowl and Shelton a little less daunting because we’ve had to win since October.”
O’Connell’s record-setting night moved him into the top spot in career receptions (179) and receiving yards (2,592), passing Demmerle’s marks of 165 and 2,550. O’Connell’s three TDs gave him 43 for his career, surpassing Silvestri’s 41, and O’Connell also extended his school record for receiving TDs to 36.
Demmerle, who played for NCHS from 1968-70, was an All-American at Notre Dame and an esteemed athlete while with the Rams. A inaugural member of the NCHS Sports Hall of Fame, Demmerle, who passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2007, owns several spots in the Rams’ football record book.
“When I first got here and I heard about Pete Demmerle and (quarterback) Rick Horton and all of those guys, I thought those were records that were unattainable,” Marinelli said. “How often do you get a guy like (O’Connell) who can start as a sophomore, a junior and a senior and is your leading receiver the whole time. He’s had the opportunity and he’s made a lot of great plays.”
“I didn’t realize the whole records thing and then I saw a tweet saying I broke three — two of Peter Demmerle’s and one of coach Silvestri’s,” O’Connell said. “I was blown away. I never dreamed of being mentioned in the same sentence with Peter Demmerle. I grew up in New Canaan and I’ve seen his ‘23’ stitched into the field on the old turf. He’s always been a champion figure, almost untouchable, and all of a sudden to be mentioned alongside him is really humbling.”
At North Carolina, O’Connell will be joining his brother Ryan, currently a sophomore for the Tar Heels.
O’Connell had given a verbal commitment to UNC, but was faced with a tough choice after he received a call from Harbaugh. Rams’ lineman Jack Stewart will be playing for the Wolverines next year, and the coaches had noticed O’Connell while watching film of Stewart.
“Jim Harbaugh had called him and offered a preferred walk-on with the idea that if he made it, he’d be a scholarship player,” Marinelli said. “That’s pretty outstanding that they would see the film while looking at Jack Stewart and actually call.”
“It was a crazy process, a bit overwhelming, but quite flattering really,” O’Connell said. “I grew up a Michigan fan and dreamed of playing there and to get a call from coach Harbaugh was breathtaking. I went out, had a great visit and really considered it.”
In the end, however, O’Connell decided to stick with North Carolina.
“Growing up I really wanted to be at Michigan, but I’ve realized now that I want to be at Chapel Hill,” he said. “If you take sports out of it, which is tough to do, Carolina is a better fit for me as a school. I love both sports equally, and after a long consideration and talking to my family, my heart was pulling me there.”
Now, O’Connell and his Rams teammates are focused on the task at hand and are relishing the underdog role they embraced following a 3-2 start.
“We’ve still got a chip on our shoulders,” O’Connell said. “We’re still the eight seed; we knocked off the one but we’re still the underdogs. We’ve had that underdog mentality really since we lost to Greenwich, so we’re proving to the state who we really are. Fairfield Prep will be tough, but we believe in who we are. We have something special and we’re delivering that game-by-game.”