MADISON — Look closely on Hand’s 2017 football roster, and you’ll find the player who has become the top running back on the No. 1 team in the state, the senior who has put his name in the school record book a couple of times. He’s there.
Colin McCabe of 2017 is a sophomore, 180-pound wide receiver/linebacker listed as No. 80, but he’s there. And then more often than not after that season, McCabe was in the weight room.
“That summer before junior year, he really hit the weight room and just got massive,” quarterback Phoenix Billings said. “He got super-fast working with our strength and conditioning coach every day during the summer.”
Now he’s No. 20 on the roster, about 35 pounds bigger (which costs him a little on the track in the spring, but so be it), and No. 1 or 1A in a backfield featuring star quarterback Phoenix Billings. If he has flown under the radar to get here, it may only be because he has worked so hard to do it in a seemingly short period.
He holds school records for rushing yards in a game, 328 in the Tigers’ season-opening 49-14 win over Notre Dame-West Haven, and for rushing touchdowns, with 33 last year and another 15 this season. He might have more, but a groin injury cost him a couple of games this year; he says he’s good to go for Friday night, when Hand (8-0) hosts Shelton (5-2) at the Surf Club.
And he didn’t play tackle football until seventh grade, the year after he moved to Connecticut from Bristow, Va., where he’d grown up playing basketball and rugby.
“Phenomenal kid from a phenomenal family,” Hand coach Dave Mastroianni said. “His mom and dad are wonderful people, and they’re no-nonsense people as well. They hold their kids to a standard. He wants to be successful. They want him to be successful. But he really wants to do it himself.”
Off the field, at least, that’s true. On it, he’ll credit everyone else.
“The yards and all that stuff is really a testament to our team,” McCabe said. “Running the ball is really a team-oriented thing. I’m not running through 11 guys. Most of the time, I’m not getting touched at all. That’s how good my line is.”
Still, even last year, as the Tigers began the defense of their 2017 Class L championship, McCabe didn’t begin the season as the top running back. He reached the end zone three times against Hillhouse anyway and twice more against New Fairfield in the first two games, with a 63-yard run included in the second game. The signs were there.
“He put on a ton of weight. He got more flexible. He got a lot stronger,” Mastroianni said. “He’s the epitome of a self-made kid. By Week 3, he was one of those kids we couldn’t keep off the field.”
In Week 3, he had the first of his eight 100-yard games and was off. He ran for 1,364 yards on 124 carries in his first season at running back, 33 of which got him to the end zone. He and Billings, a dangerous runner himself, got their timing down pat by the playoffs, and the Tigers defended their title.
Off the field, he’s the same kind of kid, keeps his head down and does his work.
“Super-nice kid,” said Billings, who signed his National Letter of Intent on Wednesday to play baseball at UConn. “He moved here a couple of years ago and sort of was shy when he first got here. We’ve definitely broken him down. We like to hang out with him.”
They’ll have two to five more games to hang out together on the football field. Most of the state, at least those who don’t compete in Class L, have been hoping for a Hand-St. Joseph battle for the Class L championship. They’ve been the No. 1 and 2 teams all season. The Cadets won Class S two seasons ago and Class M last year, matching Hand’s twin Class L titles.
Hand has all but secured a playoff spot already but would make it mathematical with a win over Shelton. The Tigers have won 32 games in a row since the last time they met the Gaels, who beat Hand 21-19 in Week 2 of 2017.
“They’re definitely a good, tough team. Big line. They’re a team that gets after it,” McCabe said. “They don’t take any funny business from anyone. We don’t either.
“I think it should be a really good game. I’m hoping it is. We’re focused for this game, so I’m hoping we come out with our best foot forward. A few games, we’ve come out a little bit slow. This game, I’m hoping we come out hot right off the bat.”