Columbia football head coach Pete Mangurian has continually said this season that the players who perform in practice will get to play in the game, regardless of age or experience.
At the beginning of last week’s contest against Yale, three freshmen walked out on the field as captains for the coin toss—Chris Connors, Travis Reim, and Kevin McCarthy. And each of them have made significant contributions to the team in just their first year in the program.
Reim and Connors’ effects on games are quite clear. Connors, a wide receiver, caught eight passes for 96 yards in Saturday’s victory over Yale. Reim, a cornerback, has made 16 tackles along with two pass break-ups over the past three weeks.
All three of these players chose to come to Columbia because they wanted to help turn the Columbia football program into a winner.
“The thing I liked the most about coach Mangurian and the staff was that their main goal was to turn this program around,” Connors said. “And it kind of intrigued me to go into a program that wasn’t so hot at the moment, but I knew we could turn it around, and that the program was on the rise.”
Though Columbia wasn’t at the top of his list initially, McCarthy says Mangurian’s pitch convinced the freshman to change his mind.
“I had a couple other schools I was looking at that I thought I had a better chance to win at, and to play,” McCarthy said. “And after meeting with him, and my official visit, I knew this was the place I wanted to go. He just had that mindset that we’re going to win games, we’re going to get it done the right way. And that’s something that I really want to be a part of.”
Connors, Reim, and McCarthy all credit older players on the team with helping them develop. Connors, who has quickly moved up the depth chart to become a starter, pointed out junior Louis DiNovo and sophomore Connor Nelligan, both receivers, as players that took him under their wing.
“Some guys would see you as a threat maybe, and not help you learn the offense, not coach you up, but it’s been the complete opposite with them,” Connors said. “And they’ve actually helped me become the player that I am by giving me coaching tips, and explaining the offense.”
Reim says that senior Matt Bocci played much the same mentoring role for him.
“Coming in I kind of had a hard time with the defensive schemes and he really helped me understand what was going on, gave me tips on the field, and kind of got me used to the whole defensive scheme. It really helped,” Reim said.
Even though there are many young players making an impact at different positions, older players said the youth and inexperience don’t make a difference.
“Well I don’t think anyone considers them freshmen,” senior quarterback Sean Brackett said after Saturday’s win over Yale. “They’re just another part of the team, and they contribute and they did a great job of doing that today. And they’ve been doing a great job all season doing that. They’ve been working hard in practice and that’s what happens, it pays off.”
Of course, there are some growing pains for the freshmen. Mangurian said that though Connors gets the mentality the coach would like the team to have, the freshman still makes rookie mistakes.
Reim has had his share of slipups as well. On Dartmouth’s game-winning drive in the Homecoming game, the cornerback allowed Big Green wide receiver Ryan McManus to make a leaping catch over him down the sideline.
“It’s disappointing when you don’t make the stop to win the game,” Reim said of the play. “And I feel like we were in the right position, it’s just a game of inches. And not being in position gives us something to improve on for the rest of the season—it’s a building point. And if we focus on the little things, it’ll make us a better team, and that’s what we want to be.”
Connors believes there has been tangible progress on the offensive side of the ball, and after the offense scored its highest point total of the season against Yale, it is clear why.
“One thing I notice is that the offense has a lot more confidence when we get on the field,” he said. “And I feel that’s huge, because if a team doesn’t have confidence, plain and simple, they’re not going to score points. And I think it’s more like a swagger—we think we can score every time we’re on the field, and that’s what’s making our offense work.”
Still, there is only one main goal in turning the Columbia football program around.
“Success for us is winning games, it’s winning championships,” McCarthy said. “We can go out and go 8-2, and that’s still not acceptable if we don’t win the championship. That’s what we’re here for—we’re here to bring the rings. And that’s what we’re going to do.”