Vin Sylvia: UNH influence at Yukica dinner
MANCHESTER -- OF THE 31 impressive young men honored at the Joe Yukica-New Hampshire Chapter of the National Football Foundation's 26th annual Scholar-Athlete Awards Dinner, only one, Jake Kennedy of Amherst's Souhegan High, will play college football for another of the night's honorees, University of New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell.
That was deceiving, as the many high school coaches in attendance at the Executive Court Banquet Facility could attest.
The influence of McDonnell and UNH is pervasive throughout the state, with high school football players flocking to Durham to develop their skills at summer camp and maybe impress McDonnell's staff enough to be considered for a scholarship offer and others just starting their careers hoping they might one day have what it takes to play for the state university.
Two former UNH campers will enroll at the school this year with full football scholarships: Kennedy and Portsmouth's Ricky Holt. They'll be joined by another New Hampshire-bred lineman, Bedford's Will McInerney and at least two more Granite State kids joining the program as "preferred walk-ons," Nashua North's Mike Lynch and Bishop Guertin of Nashua's Nick Marino, a Hudson resident.
They'll join a team whose captains include a New Hampshire native, Manchester High Central grad Seamus O'Neil, and whose key players include two of Bedford's Vailas brothers, quarterback Andy and lineman Jimmy, along with Merrimack's Mike Kelly, like Andy Vailas a graduate of Bishop Guertin.
Kennedy, who attended last weekend's Blue-White scrimmage at Cowell Stadium and was impressed by the number of fans in attendance, can't wait to be part of that group.
"Each time I go there, I get more excited," he said before receiving his Scholar-Athlete Award.
Here's why: He's going to a school with excellent academics as well as an outstanding football team, where family can drive to see him play and where winning a national championship is a realistic goal.
UNH's streak of nine consecutive NCAA Division I tournament appearances is the longest in the nation, and there's nothing to indicate that streak is about to end.
"I hope to make as many NCAA appearances as I spend seasons there," Kennedy said. "And it would be awesome to be a part of a team that brings the state its first football national championship."
That's the type of aspiration McDonnell - the recipient of the Andy Mooradian Award for outstanding contributions to amateur football, named for a former UNH coach and director of athletics - has made possible.
With a career record of 104-66 record over 14 seasons, McDonnell is among the division's most respected coaches. That he's achieved such success at his alma mater, where he played for and coached under the legendary Bill Bowes, makes it all the sweeter.
"When I first got out of UNH and started coaching high school ball in Manchester, people would say about UNH, 'Ah, it's OK,'" he said. "I'd come from upstate New York and thought it was the greatest place in the world.
"Now I think we've gotten to where kids look at our academic program and the success we've had in athletics, especially hockey and football, and say, 'That's a great place to go.'"
He's especially happy so many New Hampshire high school players have adopted that attitude during his tenure, citing Central grad Ryan Day, Plymouth Regional's Mike Boyle. Souhegan's Sean Jellison and others as Yukica Scholar-Athlete Award winners who went on to become major contributors to UNH's football success.
And that has other UNH alumni feeling pretty good about their alma mater, too.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a former UNH linebacker, attended the dinner before dashing off to a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
"There's a lot of football talent in this state, and the state university has an outstanding football program, so why not go to UNH?" he said. "It's a great school, and the football program has kept the bar set high. Sean has really done a great job."
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at email@example.com.