On the scoreboard, things couldn’t have gone worse for the Pilgrim football team this season. The Pats are 0-7 overall and have been through the ringer in a rough-and-tumble Division II-B.
But day-to-day, things really could have been worse.
Fortunately for the Pats, they haven’t been, and that’s due in large part to the efforts of veterans like senior linemen Dylan Gardner, Austin Lemire and Gage Potter. As the only players with significant varsity experience under their belts coming into the season, that trio was asked to light the way.
They didn’t hesitate.
“They’re leaders on the field and off the field,” said head coach Tom O’Connor. “They teach the younger kids. They understood going in that this year was going to be tough. Our numbers have been good, and without those guys, our numbers would be non-existent. Even in the worst of practices, they’re picking the kids up. In the best of practices, they’re letting the other kids take the lead.”
It’s not an easy role to play, especially considering recent history. The Pats had a fun year in 2011, putting themselves into the playoff race and delivering the program’s best season in years. With 22 seniors gone from that squad, the Pats knew they’d be in for some growing pains this year, but they still hoped to keep the momentum alive. Instead, they struggled immediately and quickly fell out of the playoff picture.
In situations like that, next year becomes a theme – even for the seniors who don’t have a next year.
Pilgrim’s team leaders bought in anyway.
“In the long run, we’re here for the team, not for ourselves,” said Gardner, who plays offensive tackle. “If what we’re doing now is going to make the team better in a couple of years, that’s great. I’d rather have Pilgrim’s reputation last because of what we did than just be focused on this year.”
That means teaching, encouraging, setting the tone – and working right until the end.
“We need these younger guys to step up,” Lemire said. “We’re getting them ready for when they’re going to be veterans, so that when they’re up here, they can have the best season they’re capable of.”
Gardner and Potter were key parts of the offensive line throughout last season, while Lemire battled injuries but started when he was healthy. Coming into this year, those three were the only players in the program who had regularly started varsity games.
From day one, they understood their roles.
“Being the veterans, I feel like we kind of have to lead the team,” Gardner said. “We’ve been here the four years, and we’ve been through plenty of losses. We tell these kids, ‘You can only get better.’”
Lemire anchors the line from his center position while Gardner and Potter man the tackle positions. With two new starters joining them, it’s been a tough road, but the leaders of the line have continued to push.
“I think we’ve been growing since day one,” said Potter, who also plays on defense. “Every day, every practice, we’ve gotten a little bit better. The calls are coming more smoothly, and we’re picking up our blocks and holding our blocks longer.”
The improvement of the line is mirrored all over the field. While it hasn’t showed on the scoreboard, positive steps have been taken.
“The scoreboard hasn’t reflected it, but every day you see another kid getting it,” Gardner said. “And then that goes right the next game.”
That’s the goal – development for the future, while the Pats have the chance in the present.
“The goal is to get better every week,” O’Connor said. “We’re working on skills, improving, getting the foundation down to continue this year and into next year.”
The seniors continue to be part of the construction. They want to finish strong for themselves, but also for the younger players coming up behind them.
“Honestly, the scoreboard doesn’t reflect how hard we work,” Gardner said. “We’re family, we work hard. We’re one of the only teams in full pads every day. We work.”
And the Pats will keep working. As the season winds down, the team will still be thinking about next year, but also about one final chance for the seniors to hit a high note.
“We’ve got our Homecoming game Friday and we’re looking for that first win,” Gardner said. “Especially for the seniors, we’re just looking to get a W and work towards Thanksgiving.”