NEW CANAAN — Quintin O’Connell’s best performances have often come in the New Canaan football team’s biggest games. So O’Connell’s glowing numbers in Tuesday’s 42-34 Class LL quarterfinal win over Shelton — 14 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns — were unsurprising.
What was unexpected for O’Connell came after the game, when he learned he had set three school records. O’Connell broke Pete Demmerle’s marks for receptions and receiving yards. He bumped Chris Silvestri, the Rams’ defensive coordinator, out of the top spot for touchdowns.
“I was thinking about beating Shelton and survive another day,” O’Connell said. “After the game a reporter came up to me and told me and I was blown away. I didn’t realize the magnitude. It’s unbelievable.”
Typical of O’Connell, his accomplishments resonated more because of the outcome.
“A win makes everything better,” O’Connell said. “A record doesn’t mean much if you don’t win the game. It’s a team sport. As nice as individual recognition might be we want what’s best for the team. Luckily I guess helping out the team as a receiver helped the team to a huge win. The record and win co-existed pretty well that game.”
This has been an emotional season for the Rams, on and off the field. Jason Cooper, a former player and the team’s popular receivers coach, passed away prior to the first game. The team lost their opener, against St. Joseph, and one month later was defeated by Greenwich, putting it at 3-2 for the second straight year.
The Rams have since rebounded with six straight wins, including a 17-14 decision over Darien in the Turkey Bowl to extend their run of state playoff appearances to 14.
One of the few constants has been O’Connell, who ranks third in the state in receiving yards. The marks by Demmerle, who went on to play for Notre Dame, had stood for nearly a half century.
“It has been a rollercoaster,” O’Connell said. “It is my record but you look at the record book and it’s the seasons. Tons of people, coaches, friends, family helped get me to that spot. It might be my name but it’s not me.”
O’Connell has 72 catches for 1,039 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has also carried the ball for five scores. His 14 catches against Shelton are the third most in a game in team history.
“He’s electric,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “He makes things happen. He’s got great hands, he’s fast, he’s quick, he’s able to avoid things. In a game like that where you are playing the No. 1 seed, an undefeated Shelton team, for him to come through the way he did. As the game went on the two of them clicked.”
Marinelli was referring to O’Connell and quarterback Drew Pyne, who has developed a tremendous chemistry with his top receiver.
“Drew throwing me the ball these three years and the guys blocking and the coaching, Coach Marinelli,” O’Connell said.
Ironically, O’Connell was considered the quarterback of the future when he arrived at New Canaan. He suffered an injury as a freshman, and the following year Pyne moved to New Canaan. O’Connell soon found himself on the receiving rather than throwing end of plays.
“Q was that quarterback that was earmarked for the starting job and then all of a sudden Drew Pyne comes in and not only wins the job but wins it as a freshman,” Marinelli said. “I think Q is the best receiver in the state, and if not he’s in the top two or three and I don’t know who the other guys are.”
It has worked out in New Canaan’s favor. Pyne has completed 68 percent of his passes this year and has an outstanding touchdown-to-interception ratio of 28 to 3.
The win over Shelton marked the sixth straight year the Rams had defeated a No. 1 seed. They will play at Fairfield Prep in Sunday’s semifinals.
Football might not even be O’Connell’s best sport. He has signed to play lacrosse next year at North Carolina. His status was up in the air when Michigan got involved earlier this fall and offered O’Connell the chance to play football under a preferred walk-on designation. O’Connell visited the school and gave it serious consideration.
“My parents always told me the first day of school, and you are going to break your leg and never play a sport again, where do you want to be,” O’Connell said. “I grew up a Michigan fan and I thought maybe it’s Michigan, but the reality is I really felt at home at Carolina and I really tried to take sport out of it. Weighing in everything Carolina was the best fit.”
Right now O’Connell has his mind focused on the present. He said the Rams are a different team from a year ago, when they rallied to earn a state playoff berth but were eliminated in the semifinal round.
“It all starts in the locker room,” O’Connell said. “There is a brotherhood on this team that’s unmatched to any team I’ve played for. I’m just as close with a lot of the sophomores on the team as the seniors, and I’m incredibly close with the seniors. There’s a bond between us.”
Last year ended New Canaan’s run of four straight CIAC titles. Now in Class LL, it is two games away from winning in another class.
“A state championship outweighs any individual accomplishments,” O’Connell said.