With just seven seniors and the team’s best returning player having opted not to play, Rye Country Day seemed destined for a rebuilding season. Instead, it has been anything but.
“I didn’t expect much,” seventh-year coach John Calandros said. “It’s very unexpected.”
The Wildcats enter Saturday’s game at Kingswood-Oxford 4-2, including a 3-1 mark in the Fairchester league. With a win, they can earn a share of the league title with Hamden Hall, a team they beat 41-22 on Oct. 26.
“They’ve really overachieved,” Calandros said of his team. “This is one of the hardest-working teams I’ve had.”
The story of junior Christian Pankey epitomizes that. He shifted from the backfield to tackle as a sophomore, but has moved to fullback after Rye Country Day graduated leading rushing Raishaun McGhee, who is now at Harvard, and lost second-leading rusher Tyler Fernandez, who decided not to play in order to focus on baseball. (He committed to pitch at Cornell.)
Pankey has proven he can shoulder the load. He has rushed for 918 yards in just six games. That included a workmanlike 79 carries for 536 yards and seven touchdowns during a 3-0 stretch against league rivals Hopkins, St. Luke’s and Hamden Hall last month.
“This year he really dedicated himself to playing the position,” Calandros said. “He’s 5-10, 210. He benches over 300 pounds, squats close to 500 pounds. He has really taken the bull by the horns.”
Pankey will probably need to be at his best against Kingswood-Oxford. This year’s second-leading rusher, Tyler Miller, who has committed to play lacrosse at Cornell, suffered a torn MCL two weeks ago and is expected to miss the remainder of the season.
Without Miller, Rye Country Day’s next offensive options are 6-foot-3 senior wide receiver James McPhail and senior running back Dylan Bronson.
Kingswood-Oxford presents plenty of problems. Its offense has been among the most explosive in the Fairchester league and in the state of Connecticut. Senior QB Dante Cioffi has thrown for 1,772 yards and 18 TDs in just seven games. Sophomore wideout Isaiah Wright (49 catches, 1,050 yards, 10 TDs) and junior running back Sharrieff Grice (697 yards rushing, 10 TDs) are both Division I prospects.
Although Rye Country Day being in position to win it a surprise, the program is no stranger to success. In Calandros’ seven years, the Wildcats have either won or shared the league title three times. They earned bids to a NEPSAC bowl in 2007, 2010 and 2011, and that carrot could be there waiting for the winner on Saturday.
“If we win, we’ll be right up there with other schools in New England,” Calandros said. “And we’ll wait by the phone to see if we get selected. History has shown that a team from our league gets in.”