The Whitman-Hanson Regional High football team returns eight starters on both sides of the ball and boasts a senior class of 19 as it prepares for a pivotal season.
Seven days after the 2017 campaign concluded, upperclassmen on the Whitman-Hanson Regional High football team began rallying their teammates to get into the weight room. Preparations for this fall were already underway.
The Panthers were coming off their third straight 7-4 campaign, which included a first-round playoff exit. But unlike the previous two, it was capped by a disappointing 23-12 loss to their longtime Turkey Day rivals, which left a sour taste in their mouths heading into the offseason.
“Same 7-4 season back-to-back years and back-to-back first-round playoff losses, just lost to an Abington team on Thanksgiving,” said senior captain Mike Connors, who’s been on the team since he was a sophomore. “It’s obviously not the best way to end the season, so yeah, we have a lot of momentum going into the season.”
The winter, spring and summer months were certainly long, and consisted of visits from many high-profile colleges, workouts with Marines and strength and conditioning with a current Springfield College linebacker.
While eighth-year head coach Mike Driscoll acknowledged dropping that last game motivated his players in the offseason, thus making them better, it’s time to turn the page.
“We told the kids in our first meeting that that’s a totally different team,” Driscoll explained. “It’s a new team so you can’t really reflect back.”
It’s not much of a new team personnel-wise as the Panthers are down just four starters from a season ago. In terms of experience, it’s like night and day compared to last fall for Driscoll, who returns eight starters on both sides of the ball.
“Each year you get bigger and stronger and more knowledgeable, so you kind of hit the ground running, where in the past we’d always be implementing new people,” Driscoll said. “It’s like you never left the field, but yet it is a new year with new expectations and new beginnings for them.”
The slew of returnees, many of whom have been starting since they were a sophomore, have the Panthers, who finished 3-2 in the Patriot League last fall, garnering a lot of attention from around the state. However, it’s just like any new season to Driscoll.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on the kids,” Driscoll explained. “To us, it’s been Day 1 and Day 2 like any other time, so we treat it that way as a staff. If we are looking at it like pressures and expectations we’re probably leading us down the wrong path.”
Not only does W-H return an experienced group of starters, but it will carry a senior class of 19, which puts even more of an emphasis on winning.
“This senior year is something huge for us,” Connors said. “It’s our last year together, we expect to go far.”
While Connors is a key senior captain, he’s more pivotal at middle linebacker, where he led the team with 104 tackles last season.
“He’s a difference maker in the middle for us,” Driscoll said. “He’s the big, strong football player.”
Starting in front of Connors on the defensive side of the ball at the defensive end is returning starter and fellow senior captain Quinn Sweeney, who totaled a team-high 16 tackles for loss last season and six sacks. Driscoll coined Sweeney as the ‘energy guy.’
“He loves football,” Driscoll said. “He lives for this stuff and he’s going to have an amazing season, I just see it already. He’s just the type of kid who can get off the ball and he’s worked on a lot of his quickness.”
Sweeney also holds down a post at tackle on offense, where he is tasked with creating time and paving holes for dual-threat quarterback and senior captain Ethan Phelps.
Phelps, who also assumed his starting role in 10th grade, garnered over 2,600 total yards and 32 touchdowns in 2017. Driscoll said he believes Phelps can be even better.
“We’re really working with him a lot to take it to the next level so he’s like another coach on the field, and that’s something he’s striving to do and he’s working on that, to be more of a general at all times,” Driscoll said. “He’s never going to be satisfied unless it’s perfect. He knows our offense, so he worked hard to get better as a passer.”
To Phelps’ advantage, he won’t have to worry about developing a rapport with his main playmakers because the Panthers return nearly all of them. Out of the backfield, Connors (80 carries for 484 yards, 3 TDs in ’17) and classmate Brendan Frawley (78 carries for 447 yards, 2 TDs) enter their third year together.
“Frawley is more of speed and [a] slasher and Mike’s more going to run you over and get tough yards,” Driscoll explained.
The W-H head coach added he wants to get senior Billy Martell, who rushed the ball just once last season, some more touches.
“Billy’s the fastest player on the team so we’re going to use all of them three now,” Driscoll said. “It’s going to be tough to defend.”
At wide receiver, Phelps welcomes back six of his seven top targets. As a unit, the returnees — led by Martell (12 receptions for 153 yards, 2 TDs) and senior captains Jacob Nixon (23 receptions for 211 yards, 3 TDs) and Rian Schwede (19 receptions for 300 yards, 2 TDs) — hauled in 74 percent of Phelps’ competitions and accounted for 73 percent of his yards in the air last fall.
“[We have] three great receivers there, three kids who can get the ball in space and make things happen and run the deep and short routes,” Driscoll said. “[They’re] a great group of kids.”
At kicker, Jake O’Brien (18 of 19 on PATs and 3 of 3 on FGs) is back for his third year as the starter.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the top five kickers in the state,” Driscoll said.
Key losses for W-H from last season are center and defensive lineman Riley Holland, wide receiver and cornerback Brett Holmes, linebacker Jack Kelly and offensive tackle Hunter Dunn.
“They were a great working group kids who set a huge tone for our team,” Driscoll said.
As for what is going to propel the Panthers past a 7-4 record this season, it’s tough to overlook their athleticism and experience.
“These kids worked hard over the offseason with the strength and conditioning and just overall knowledge in everything we do,” Driscoll said. “They know how to practice. They know our schemes and that’s huge from a classes aspect and for them, it makes their job easier as student-athletes. You’re not worried about studying the playbook when you already know it, so that’s a huge advantage for us.”
The Panthers open their 2018 campaign at home Sept. 7 against non-league foe Marshfield at 7 p.m.
“Our goal has always been to win the league championship and that’s what we’re striving for, that’s what we’re working towards,” Driscoll said. “So, in order to achieve that, we’re going to have to have a better record than 7-4.”