By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — Trinity Catholic athletic director Tracy Nichols was watching silently from the sidelines during the third quarter of his football team’s game with Fairfield Warde on Friday night when a revelation seemed to cross his mind.
“I remember Marce’s first year,” said Nichols, referring to Marce Petroccio, the coach who has transformed the Staples football program from the subject of jokes into a state power. “We were good and we beat them probably something like 56-6, but I was watching the way Marce was going around to his players, teaching them. Donny does the same thing.”
Nichols was referring to Donny Panapada, the man he hired last winter to take over the Crusaders.
It was deja vu for Nichols moments after the Crusaders fell to 0-3 following a hard-fought 13-7 loss at Fairfield Warde, a defensive struggle in which no points were scored after the second play of the second quarter.
As his players slumped off the field, Panapada was in full stay-positive mode, clapping his hands and offering encouragement.
“It’s not happening as fast as I want it to happen, but it’s happening,” Panapada said. “We’re getting better every game.”
Though it cannot yet be measured in wins and losses, improvement is taking place for a young team that was decimated by graduation losses a year after qualifying for the state playoffs for the first time since 1993.
“I thought we got better today,” said Matt Christensen, one of Trinity’s co-captains. “The outcome doesn’t always prove it.”
While it is going to take more tangible results for the frustration to dissipate, Panapada has produced quicker results working on his players’ psyches as he continues to try and get the same findings on the field.
“Donny’s been great,” Christensen said. “He’s a great motivator. We support him, he supports us. He’s never going to tell us anything he doesn’t think we can’t do. I’m with him the whole way.”
The Trinity football team is a reflection of the family-oriented nature of the school.
Panapada is the third former Trinity player Nicholas hired to oversee the program, replacing Pete Stokes, who replaced Bryan Fox.
Panapada is a 1993 graduate who played for and then was an assistant at Greenwich for Rich Albonizio. He spent the last two years as the Crusaders’ defensive coordinator before getting his first head coaching job.
“It’s been a great experience,” Panapada said prior to Friday’s game. “It is everything I thought it would be. I don’t like losing. Overall it’s been going well, I’m happy with the way the kids are working. The kids are doing everything we ask them to do.”
The Crusaders took the opening kickoff Friday and drove 60 yards in seven plays, resulting in Connor Amann’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Costigan.
Three plays earlier, on third down, Panapada saw something in the Mustangs’ defense. “Let’s go to the fade,” Panapada said into his headset.
Though just four yards were needed for the first down, Amann threw a perfect 30-yard pass to Luis Gonzalez.
But that was the extent of the offensive highlights, due in part to a stingy defensive effort by a Warde team that ended an eight-game losing streak.
“Defensively we are pretty much the same system, but offensively we’re different,” Panapada said. “The kids not only have to make plays, they have to make decisions and they are having a difficult time right now. It comes with experience.”
Panapada’s first home game as head coach comes next Saturday against Greenwich and Albonizio.
While the depth and quality at Trinity varies from year to year, effort has been the one constant. That has not wavered this fall.
“We’re close, we’re close to getting there,” Panapada said hopefully.
As he walked off the field, Nichols’ words comparing him to Petroccio were repeated to Panapada, who smiled.
“That’s a great compliment,” Panapada said. “I hope one day to be as successful as Marce is.”