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Senior captain Phoenix Billings and the Hand football team have their sights set on winning a third-straight Class L state title after posting a record of 13-0 a season ago. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Senior Jesse Lutz is one of several running backs will be relied upon to moves the sticks for Hand football squad behind an experienced offensive line this fall. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Isaiah McNeilly and Tigers are ready to kick off a new season with a home game against Notre Dame-West Haven under the lights at the Surf Club on Friday, Sept. 13. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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The Hand football team has defeated nearly every opponent that it’s faced while winning back-to-back state championships. As they gear up for a run at the three-peat, the Tigers believe that they’ve already defeated their first foe of the 2019 season: complacency. Head Coach Dave Mastroianni feels pleased that his athletes are maintaining major expectations as Hand gets ready to hit the gridiron this fall.
“Success breeds success. You don’t want to be the guy who loses,” said Mastroianni. “There is a standard, and the one that has been set is an incredibly high one.”
Hand enters the campaign as the two-time defending Class L champions, having won 24-straight games en route to claiming consecutive state crowns. Once again, the Tigers are loaded with talent and look primed to bring more championship hardware back to Madison.
Mastroianni’s offense will led by senior captain quarterback Phoenix Billings, who enters his third season as Hand’s signal caller. Last year, Billings threw for 1,740 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior, in addition to rushing for 11 TDs and an average of 14.5 yards carry.
“[Billings] had such a breakout year at quarterback last year. As a sophomore, he was a game manager and, last year, he could win a game for you,” Coach Mastroianni said. “We are probably going to now let him be even more dynamic than he was.”
Billings will be handing the ball off to senior running back Colin McCabe quite a bit this year. McCabe, who was given the starting nod three weeks into last season, finished the year with 1,364 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns. While those are impressive numbers on their own, they’re even more notable considering that most of the Tigers’ starters didn’t even play a full game, because they were often ahead by so many points. Senior Jesse Lutz, junior Conner Quinn, and sophomore Ethan O’Brien are also slated to get their fair share of carries for Hand this season.
The Tigers feature an experienced offensive line that will be paving the way for the team’s rushers. Hand’s O-line is led by senior captain left tackle Ben Corniello, a four-year starter who will play football at Columbia University next year. Juniors Sander Coscia, Ryan Bordiere, Tom Bambrick, and Jake Diagnault will also be doing the dirty work in the trenches for Hand this fall.
On the outside, the Tigers have plenty of weapons that can give opposing defenses fits. Ethan Haberman, a 6-foot-5 wide receiver, is going to play out of the slot receiver position for Coach Mastroianni’s squad.
“Ethan is a mismatch. We are doing some stuff with him on the outside to get him out there, because he can be mismatch against a little corner,” Mastroianni said. “He has great body control, great hands, and he knows how to go get it.”
The other key targets for Billings are receivers Kade Doverspike and fellow senior Isaiah McNeilly, the latter who is serving as one of Hand’s captains.
Hand’s defensive unit brings back a wealth of experience in the front seven. The Tigers’ line is anchored by Corniello, senior Austin Doyle, and sophomore Kevin Nizolek.
“The surprise of camp has been Austin Doyle. He is going to start for us at [nose tackle],” said Mastroianni. “He is going to get after you, and he is so quick. He so hard to block at the nose.”
The Tigers are returning all four starters at the linebacker position. Seniors Shane Reiner and Lukas Wagner will join forces with Doverspike and McCabe to lead a formidable core of linebackers this year.
If Hand has any lack of experience, it’s in the secondary, where the Tigers graduated three All-State performers from last season. Junior Will Flanagan, Aiden Patrick, Quinn, and McNeilly will be playing defensive back for Hand in 2019.
“We’ve got some good athletes,” Mastroianni said. “But we just haven’t played a lot with them back there.”
In terms of the kicking game, McNeilly will continue to handle the placekicking duties for Hand. Haberman is the Tigers’ punter, and Reiner will once again be the team’s long snapper.
With all the preseason hoopla coming to a close, Hand is ready for its first true test of the year. The Tigers will open up their campaign by hosting Notre Dame-West Haven for a Week 1 matchup at the Surf Club at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13.
“You want to open up with Notre Dame. You’re going to find out how good you are right away,” said Mastroianni said. “So, it will test our guys right out of the gate, and they’re going to find out if they’re for real.”
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