- Scott Barboza, ESPN Staff Writer
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MANSFIELD, Mass. -- As a rising high school senior, Mansfield’s Will Palanza is wise beyond his years. Talking to him for even a few minutes, you quickly find he’s concerned with matters that often escape the grasp of adults.
For that reason, and many more, Palanza was named one of the Hornets’ five senior captains for the upcoming football season. He’s taken the job seriously, getting as much input from outside sources to prepare for his job as a leader.
That quest for knowledge led Palanza into an unlikely friendship with the subject of a recent Oscar-winning documentary.
Palanza, a second-generation Mansfield athlete, met Manassas (Tenn.) football head coach Bill Courtney earlier this year at the Massachusetts premiere of “Undefeated”, a feature-length documentary by filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. After the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, Courtney made an appearance at a premiere event at the Patriot Place Showcase Cinema in Foxborough. Palanza and his teammates were given special invitation to attend. There, he struck up a conversation with Courtney, the beginning of a correspondence that continues today.
The subject of their talks and emails have been wide ranging.
“I’ve asked him questions on how can I do this better, or that better, or how to keep the team as one unit,” Palanza said. “You can have problems with other people’s egos on a team or whatnot; I want this year to be different. I want this team to come together. I asked him how to do that, how we can do things differently. We talked a lot about that.”
Palanza, a 6-foot, 210-pound offensive guard and linebacker, knows a thing or two about football in Mansfield. His father, Rich, was a standout basketball player and his mother Martine ran track at Mansfield High. The eldest of seven children, Will has followed in the family tradition, as has his younger brother, Bo, who’s a sophomore football player.
They both know what Hornets football means.
“This is town is pretty much formed around football, this sport,” Palanza said. “It’s amazing how it brings a lot of people together. I don’t think any other sport is like this.
“It’s an amazing thing. You come out here, starting in second grade, and it’s something that builds over the years. You come and watch the high school team and you think ‘I’d like to be like them some day.’ And then one day you’re already here.”
So this fall, Palanza will have the opportunity to lead his teammates onto the field.
Mansfield football, after all, is a family. And that’s something Palanza doesn’t want to forget. It’s also something he’s discussed with Courtney, taking cues from his big-screen example.
“You have to put others before yourself,” Palanza said. “We weren’t elected captains to boss other people around. It’s not about what the captains want, it about what they can do to make the unit better and more successful on the field.”
Palanza wants to study criminal justice in college and he’s considering the Coast Guard and Mass Maritime Academies in addition to Endicott and Assumption. He’s keen on the idea of military academies and their high job placement track record.
He talked about the economy and his parents ability to put him and his six siblings through college and the struggle that can present.
He hasn’t yet graduated high school, but Palanza’s well versed in life.
He slipped his helmet on and ran back to practice. Lines of players were going through stretches.
Palanza took his place at the front of the lines, leading his team through the drills.
MANSFIELD AT A GLANCE
2011: 9-2 (Hockomock Kelley-Rex co-champions)
Coach: Mike Redding (24th season, 196-61-4)
Players to watch: Robby Rapoza, Sr. RB/LB, 5-10, 170; Kevin Makie, Sr. RB/DB, 5-11, 170; Brendan Hill, Soph. TE/DE, 6-3, 180; Mike Hershman, Jr. WR/DB, 5-11, 160; Will Palanza, Sr. OG/LB, 6-0, 210; Antonio Medeiros, Sr. OT/DE, 6-3, 245; Brian Spillane, Sr. WR/DB, 5-9, 150; James Comer, Sr. DT/OG, 5-11, 250; Ryan Galanti, Sr. OL/DL, 6-1, 200; Kyle Wisnieski, Jr. QB, 5-11, 160.
Strengths: Playmaking ability in the passing game.
Weakness: Lack of game experience at running back and linebacker.
Outlook: Mansfield’s graduating class of 2012 left the high school with a combined record of 21-3, with that also went many of the key members of the Hornets’ 2010 Super Bowl championship squad. So there’s been a bit of a sea change through the last two years. This year’s model returns short on game experience, but with great potential. Hornets head coach Mike Redding has raved about the progress junior quarterback Kyle Wisnieski has made throughout the summer. Wisnieski will not be without targets either, as Brendan Hill and Mike Hershman are both among the state’s most skilled at their positions. The question for the Hornets will be in who claims the bulk of the carries with leading rushers Greg Donahue and Blaine Taylor gone. Mansfield also graduated its leading tackler, linebacker Zach Schafer, who concluded his career ranked fourth on the Hornets all-time tackles list. Still, the Hornets do have some key returnees on the defensive side of the ball, with captains Robby Rapoza and Kevin Makie picking up the slack at linebacker and in the secondary, respectively. Defensive tackle James Comer will be a run-stuffer up the middle while rangy end Antonio Medeiros can pressure the quarterback.