The direction of the Whitman-Hanson Regional High football team continues to trend upward as it heads into the offseason.
For the third straight season the Panthers boasted a 7-4 record and made a trip to the postseason, falling in the first round.
“I told them, ‘We’re not going to focus on the last game, we’re going to focus on the seven wins that they had and they showed improvements,’” W-H head coach Mike Driscoll said. “We’re getting closer.’’
That last game Driscoll is referring to is the Panthers’ 23-12 loss to Abington on Thanksgiving — which for the first time all season, W-H didn’t hold a lead.
Although it may appear the team is stuck in neutral, it certainty is not. In W-H’s losses last season, it wasn’t always competitive as one came by over 30 points and two were dealt to it by 20 or more points. The other came by 11 points. The Panthers lost all four games by a combined 91 points, a number that dropped significantly this fall.
This season, in their Week 3, 23-9, defeat against Duxbury — a game in which W-H held a brief lead (7-0) — it was a six-minute span in a game that spiraled out of control for the Panthers. Three weeks later, the Panthers were driving on Hingham to win the game, when junior signal caller Ethan Phelps got banged up, forcing him to head to the sidelines, where he watched them fall, 28-21. Against Stoughton in the first round of the playoffs, the Panthers led by nine at halftime, but were held scoreless the rest of the way, resulting in a 30-21 loss. Against Abington, despite not maintaining a single advantage, the Panthers still only trailed by one, 13-12, at halftime.
“We see the improvements,” Driscoll said. “We’re certainly a better football team this year than we were last year. I think we’re moving in the right direction. The season could have been totally different if we could have finished off some of those games.”
The Panthers, despite their inability to close things out in those contests, still flashed grittiness in a few nail-biting wins. In their season opener, it was a late Phelps score in the waning minutes, coupled with a goal-line stand with two seconds remaining, that pushed them over Plymouth South, 23-18. On Oct. 6, Phelps took a QB keeper 60 yards to pay dirt with 50 seconds remaining as the Panthers edged Plymouth North, 28-24.
One constant in W-H’s comebacks was Phelps, who was one of several then-sophomores to assume significant roles for the Panthers last fall. In his second campaign under center, Phelps rushed for over 1,400 yards yet again and found the end zone 18 times. However, it was his enhanced passing game that made him more of a threat this season as his completion percentage rose nearly two percent and his touchdowns doubled to 14 as he passed for over 1,000 yards for the second straight season.
“He worked hard to become a better passer, and he’d like to throw the ball every down, [but] we like to run it first,” Driscoll said. “He’s got that it-factor and he can take it to the house from anywhere on the field. The thing with Ethan is he’ll continue to work at it and get better and we’ll have our talk and see what he needs to improve on, but he’s just a very talented young man.”
On the receiving end of 46 percent of Phelps’ completions were fellow juniors Jacob Nixon and Rian Schwede as the two combined for 42 receptions, 511 yards and five scores. Out of the backfield, juniors Brendan Frawley (78 carries for 447 yards, 2 TDs) and Mike Connors (80 carries for 484 yards, 3 TDs) put forth solid seasons. Connors also spearheaded the Panthers’ defense with his team-leading 104 tackles, a number he nearly doubled from last season.
“Mike Connors is on another planet,” Driscoll said.
Driscoll also noted he was pleasantly impressed with the play of junior linemen Quinn Sweeney, who led the team in sacks, and Ryan Trongone.
“Quinn Sweeney started every game for us at right tackle, [and] we weren’t sure if he was going to be able to play offense, but he was fabulous, so wasn’t Ryan Trongone, [a] two-way lineman for us,” Driscoll said. “Two guys who really stepped up to the plate and had great seasons.”
While the junior class garners much of the attention for W-H, Driscoll reiterated it was his senior captains – Hunter Dunn, Riley Holland and Brett Holmes – that kept the club together.
“They work hard, they [lead] by example in school first, in the community and out on the football field,” the seventh-year Panthers head coach said. Driscoll said despite his club not being where it wants to be just yet, it’s getting close.
“I’m very proud of this team,” he said. “I’m very happy with the way that the seniors handled things and I’m very happy with the way we’re moving.”