It wasn't until Matt Walsh saw the officials turning various shades of pale white that he fully comprehended the scene his badly ripped up nose was creating in the opening moments of Sunday's Class L semifinal.
The Hand senior linebacker and captain broke his chin strap on the opening kickoff and planned on getting his equipment fixed after the first defensive series. The hard to miss stitch work on the bridge of his nose at Monday's CIAC football luncheon at Rentschler Field was a pretty good indication that things didn't quite go the way he had planned.
"On kickoff on the first play of the game my chin strap snapped and I didn’t want to come out for the first play because I didn’t feel like I needed to," Walsh said. "I didn’t think that one play I was going to end up making a tackle. There was nothing holding it on and no protection so the facemask came up and ripped apart my face. I was able to go off to the sideline and Terri (Ajaski) our trainer did a nice job patching it up for the whole game, she kept redoing it whenever I needed it and she was able to keep me in there. It was kind of pouring out and the refs were kind of skeeving out on the field."
Even as Ajaski was working to stop the bleeding, Walsh had an eye on the field and was eager to get back on the field. As if Walsh didn't already have a reputation as a tough as nail competitor before, he certainly has it now.
"We were concerned but our trainer did a tremendous job patching him up," Hand coach Steve Filippone said. "I give him credit and I give his family credit. A lot of people would say no, the scar is going to be there for the rest of his life and the game is only tonight but I think he and his family have the right perspective, they know how hard he has worked to be here and it was the right choice for him and the football team.
"Take a good look at him, how many kids would go out on the field with that. Not many. I think we have plenty. I think any of these guys who are here would have done exactly the same thing. I think we have a lot of kids like that in our program and I think that is why we are successful."
Successful would be an understatement especially for Walsh and his current seniors who go after a second straight Class L title.
Filippone, who won his 200th career game at Hand in Sunday's semifinal win, believes a win would allow this group of seniors to be ranked as highly as any other class during his remarkable coaching career.
"Extraordinary," Filippone said of the senior class. "If we are fortunate to win on Saturday, they would have won 26 games in a row, they would have won 36 out of 38 (games) and they were undefeated as freshmen. They are right there with our 2003-2004-2005 team which was a great sophomore, junior and then senior class and the one thing that group did that this group hasn’t done is to be the No. 1 team in Connecticut. If they can pull this off on Saturday and we can maintain that position, you have to put these guys right there with the best we have ever had."
Walsh looked like he was ready to strap on his shoulder pads and newly-repaired helmet and take on Windsor on Monday
"There is not a better feeling in the world especially running out there for the second straight year knowing I am going to be playing here for the next four years and running with the best group of men they could possibly put together," Walsh said. "It is going to be an unbelievable feeling there is nothing that can compare to it.
"With us compared to other schools, some private schools we went up, we all great up together and we played against North Branford in youth football and they lost some kids to places like Xavier and Cheshire Academy and we kind of all stayed together. We basically grew up together and now we are here together. This last game is going to be one of the last times we are all together and we are going to make it a memorable one."
Walsh is one of the UConn commits who have taken to twitter in support of a Connecticut program which just finished a second straight 5-7 season. Walsh did not make it up to Rentschler on Saturday for an official visit like so many of his future teammates since he had one final practice before facing Masuk. But Walsh has really positive vibes about the quality of the class he will heading into UConn with.
"I’ve had good relationships with a lot of them," Walsh said. "I know a lot of them had a great time up here on their official visit. They watched the game and even though UConn came up short, they had a great experience. They love everything UConn is doing right now, they love being on campus. With all the other commits, I can’t wait to get up here and play with everybody
"I think we have some great recruits who can turn everything around. We will start working towards the Big East championship just like UConn wants to do every year, that is our goal next year."
Walsh has seen time as a short-yardage and goal-line back as a senior and when he gets to UConn he is projected to play fullback.
Filippone, who played for UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone at Southern Connecticut State, believes Walsh will make an impact sooner rather than later for the Huskies.
"Once he can focus on one position, train for that position I think he will be a very significant contributor to UConn’s success over the next couple of years," Filippone said. "I’ve known Coach P and Coach DeLeone, they were my college coaches at Southern. I have known them my entire adult life and I wouldn’t ever throw something their way I wasn’t sure would give them some payback and I am absolutely that certain that he is going to be a great player."
Xavier coach Sean Marinan concurs with Filippone on Walsh's bright future.
"I think he will do well," Marinan said. "He plays hard, he plays fast. He has good size, he has good strength and he is a hard-nosed kid and he will be on the field, starting."
Walsh is just one of three UConn commits playing in state playoffs this weekend.
The Class L final between Hand and Windsor is set for 5:30 p.m. on Saturday at Rentschler Field. The game as well as the Class S, M and LL championships games will be televised live on CPTV Sports.
Linebacker Junior Joseph wiill lead Wilson High of West Lawn, Pa. up against North Allegheny in Pennsylvania's Class AAAA semifinal on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona. Offensive lineman Kyle Schafenacker will lead St. Thomas Aquinas against Manatee on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Florida's 7A semifinals.
MARINAN BACK HEALTHY
Marinan, who is trying to lead Xavier to its third straight Class LL title, provided an update on his son Sean Marinan Jr. who was sidelined this season with a back injury.
Sean Marinan Sr. said that his son, a freshman defensive end who came to UConn as a preferred walk-on, was cleared to return to practice three weeks ago.
"He is back doing contact so he is happy to be back on the rebound," Marinan Sr. said. "He is starting to get his strength back a little bit and he is looking forward to spring practice.
"He had what we thought was a hip issue in the spring. He and Graham (Stewart) were going to this gym. They thought it was his hip and it was his back. He was up there lifting again, doing a squat and at the 10th rep he couldn’t get up. It is a long road back. He is looking to get his strength back.
"When he started non-contact stuff and he was a different person once that started. He got through it and hopefully he gets his strength back.
"After the first practice he called me. He calls me about every week. He was doing scout team stuff (late in the season). Being a part of the team again out there on the practice field, it makes a huge difference."
Marinan Sr. said that Stewart, who ironically was injured while lifting just two days after Marinan Jr. got hurt the same way, is still likely a couple months away from being able to fully cleared.
"They are going to let that just sit," Marinan Sr. "I think it is going to be another couple of months.
"The NCAA didn’t give him the hardship (waiver to play this season after transferring from Florida). If you are going to get hurt, you obviously don’t want to, but those are the circumstances to do it. He didn’t really lose anything. Hopefully everything mends well and it won’t be an issue."
On Sunday's media conference call, Stewart was one of the young players that Pasqualoni touted as a potential impact player during the 2013 season. With the graduation of starting linebackers Jory Johnson and Sio Moore could open up a spot for Stewart at linebacker.
"I think he is going to have an impact" Marinan Sr. said of Stewart. "He flies around, plays hard and especially with the kids graduating you will see him out there I think he is going to make a difference."
Labels: Graham Stewart, Matt Walsh, Sean Marinan