Friday, August 27, 2010
At Holy Name, toughness built on 'The Rock'
By Adam Kurkjian
A quick look at Holy Name sophomore Quron Wright can be deceptive. Like the football program he plays for, his size doesn't tell you the whole story.
Holy Name coach Mike Pucko generously lists Wright at 5-feet, 7-inches, 160 pounds. But there wasn’t much on the field that he couldn’t do as a freshman last season, leading the team in scoring with 18 touchdowns from his running back position and picking off four passes at cornerback.
Like Wright, when the Naps line up on the sideline on Saturdays, the other team might underestimate its opponent when it sees only 24 or 25 Holy Name players dressed for the varsity game. That might be a little more common in Division 2, where Pucko led Holy Name to a pair of Super Bowl wins in his first two years at the school, turning around a program that had won just two games in 2004..
But in 2007, the Naps moved up to Division 1, where teams like St. John’s (Shrewsbury), Leominster and Wachusett often dress three times the number of players for a varsity game. That hasn't stopped Holy Name from achieving success, as the Naps won the Division 1A Super Bowl in 2008 and have made the playoffs each year since making the jump. Last year, the Naps lost the Division 1 Super Bowl to Thanksgiving Day rival Wachusett.
The Holy Name players aren’t going to complain about the lack of numbers, or the fact that their school, according to the latest enrollment data on the MIAA website, has only 260 boys, while St. John’s and Wachusett are listed with over 950 each. Their attitude reflects just the opposite, in fact.
"We're hard-nosed kids," said senior linebacker Sean Mahoney, who will take over at quarterback this season. "When you snap the ball, each team is going to have 11 kids on the field. Those 11 best are going to play. The outcome is who’s tougher."
"We're a tighter bunch, a closer unit," said fellow linebacker and classmate Nick Fritz. "So, I mean, it makes all the wins sweeter. We're more together. I prefer it that way."
Pucko has molded a tough, workmanlike group of players each season that are able to overcome whatever obstacles the size of the school throws their way.
Wright exemplifies that attitude. The oldest of four brothers (including freshman Jeremiah, who is smaller than Quron by a good six inches, at least), Wright balances his football responsibilities with those of taking care of his siblings while his parents work multiple jobs.
"My parents mostly work two jobs," Wright said. "So I have to take care of (my younger brothers), fit them into my schedule of lifting with my friends and running and doing all that."
Pucko fosters a reputation of physicality among his players, although defensive coordinator Barry Finneron, who followed Pucko from his last head coaching job at West Boylston, said that wasn’t too difficult at first.
"The school's always had hitters," Finneron said. "Once you get them to be where they’re supposed to be, it’s a whole different ballgame."
"It’s a two-edged sword. Obviously, you’re always going to get some tough kids," Pucko said. "But the trick is getting the kids that aren't sure that they're tough yet, to make them believe in what they’re doing. And that’s the concept of what we do...You've got to convince some of the kids that hitting is fun. And they’re really not sure that it is."
The players tend to buy into what Pucko preaches.
"That’s our thing," Fritz said of the hitting. "We start, from the beginning of the season, looking for hitters. That’s what we do."
And that mentality is rewarded.
"The helmet awards, they’re all for hits," Finneron said. "It's for tackles. It’s for good blocks downfield. He doesn't give any awards for touchdowns and stuff like that: interceptions, causing fumbles. Those are the things you get it for. That becomes part of the whole process there."
"I teach old-school football. I think the game should be played with the hitting and the contact,” Pucko said. “If a line opens up a huge hole, I don’t like giving awards to backs that score touchdowns. It’s a team concept offense.
"Emil (Igwenagu, a former Nap running back who’s now a tight end and captain at UMass) last week when he was interviewed up at UMass, they said, 'Do you feel bad that you rushed for 5,000 yards in high school and now you're just blocking?' He goes, 'No. It was a team concept. I always blocked for the other guys. Whatever it takes to win, that's what football's all about. And that's what we do.' That couldn’t be any better for our program than a comment like that from a kid that did rush for 5,000 yards, that he knows blocking is a big part of football. That's what we reward kids for. Not for scoring a touchdown, but the kids that block to get him there."
Pucko's "team concept offense" is the double-wing, a run-heavy set with tight formations that gets more people to the point of attack than the defense and saps time off the clock with long drives.
"Obviously, you're in a school situation like this where part of the offense is to take time off the clock so your defense is out as little as possible with the numbers we have," Pucko said. "So it all kind of plays in."
"If you don't like to hit, you shouldn't be out here," Mahoney said. "It’s pretty tough. You have to be tough to play this offense. It's awesome."
But even with the time-consuming offense, the amount of players going both ways can take its toll when facing programs that can two-platoon.
"Except for obviously if someone gets hurt, both teams are putting 11 on the field. If you can put 11 good kids out there that want to play, that’s fine," Finneron said. "The problem is numbers 12, 13 and 14 might not be as good as somebody else."
Perhaps there’s no better example, though, than the Naps' 2008 Division 1A Super Bowl win over Wesfield, a 20-7 silencing of a squad that boasted Division 1 talent on the offensive line and averaged nearly 38 points per game. Pucko dressed 18 -- including three eighth-graders -- and played all of them. UMass-bound tight end Brandon Potvin played five different positions on offense, sometimes switching with each play, while others were switching jersey numbers with each series. With no decent kicker, they went for two on every point-after, and a lineman squibbed it downfield on kickoffs, giving the Bombers favorable field position all afternoon.
"That was probably the most incredible feat any group of kids will ever do in their life. It was absolutely amazing," Pucko said. "And Westfield was a great football team. They were big, they were physical. For our young kids to step up and rise to the occasion and all play that hard, I still can’t believe it to this day. It still amazes me how the younger kids played so well."
With feats like that in mind,, that makes the Naps" weight training and conditioning program all the more valuable.
"Having kids play both ways all year long is very demanding," he said. "I don’t care who you are, what level you played. And the competition we play, it’s not light competition. We’re playing St. John’s, Wachusett, Leominster, Nashoba, teams that really bang you.
"So to play those teams every single week and kids going both ways, it’s very important," he added. "You're in the weight room. You're looking for muscle tone. Your conditioning is better than everybody else because you are. Two years ago, we were up on St. John’s 8-2 with a minute to go in the game and they’re rotating offense and defense (St. John’s eventually won, 9-8). Our kids played their ass off both ways, and at the end of the game, they were so dehydrated and so tired that, even as much conditioning as we do, you play a hot Saturday afternoon playing both ways, it takes its toll on you. Obviously, we try to be in the best condition as we can possibly get."
That much is evident on the first day of practice, on the field the players and coaches affectionately refer to as "The Rock," a narrow pitch under a giant windmill. On a cold, windswept late afternoon with spats of rain coming down, Pucko sent his team on a lap each time a ball was fumbled, which happened at least three times in a row late in practice as the squad was practicing one of its base power runs.
"I think one of the big things is they know he’ll do anything for them," Finneron said. "You listened to the number of kids that have gone off to college. He sends out tapes, letters. I mean, he really busts. And not just for Holy Name kids, for the whole area. I know kids from Burncoat and Doherty and other schools that have called him. And parents have called him, and he’s sent out our tape. I mean, I think that’s part of it. He’s got the reputation of somebody who, if you come and work, he’s going to work just as hard to get you what you want to do and where you want to go."
Pucko and his players know they are fighting an uphill battle. Their first game of the season is against St. John’s, a perennial Division 1 favorite.
"We haven’t beat them in 27 years," said senior linebacker Kevin Donohue. "We've got a good bunch of kids this year. I can’t wait for 9/11. It’s going to be a good game."
Pucko said that when the Naps won the Division 1A Super Bowl in 2008, athletic director Jim Manzello mentioned that Holy Name was the smallest school in the country playing in a state’s highest classification.
"I’ll take it from him," Pucko said. "I'm not a researcher, but coming from (Manzello), it's pretty good information."
"(The players) love that we're the smallest school in the country playing D-1 football," said Pucko with a grin that said, even with the depth problems that come with it, their coach loves it, too.
But amidst all the steep, uphill climbs (both figuratively and literally) Wright is just like everyone else here on the hill.
"I'm just putting the hard work in practice and everything, doing as good as I can," he deadpanned.
HOLY NAME AT A GLANCE
2009: 10-3, lost in Central Mass Division 1 Super Bowl
Coach: Mike Pucko (sixth season, 48-11)
Players to watch: Quron Wright, So., RB/CB, 5-feet-7-inches, 160 pounds (74 rushes for 785 yards, 18 TDs, 108 points, 64 tackles, 4 INTs); Kevin Donohue, Sr., LB/FB, 5-11, 210 (91 rushes for 671 yards, 52 points, 104 tackles, 3 INTs); Nick Fritz, Sr., LB/TE/FB, 5-10, 190 (122 tackles, 1 INT); Sean Mahoney, Sr., QB/LB, 6-1 ½ , 215, LB/QB, (88 tackles, 1 INT); Danny Kegbah, So., WR/CB, 6-1 ½ , 180 (6 receptions for 184 yards, 49 tackles, 2 INTs).
Strengths: Linebackers, Speed, Toughness, Attitude
Weaknesses: Numbers, Depth
Outlook: The Naps have made it to the postseason in each of Pucko's five years on Granite Street, and it would be a surprise if they didn’t do so again in his sixth. The season begins and ends with the toughest teams on the schedule, as Holy Name opens with St. John’s (Shrewsbury) and finishes with Wachusett on Thanksgiving. Donohue, Fritz and Mahoney make up one of the strongest group of linebackers in Central Mass., while senior Jugert Bango (6-1, 225) will anchor both lines. Wright will look to build on an explosive freshman campaign where he led the Naps in scoring. Mahoney takes over at quarterback, and while he won’t throw often, when he does, he will look in Kegbah's direction often. So long as they stay relatively healthy, the Naps will challenge for their fourth Super Bowl title under Pucko's tutelage.