Interview: Archbishop Shaw coach Tommy Connors has high hopes with experienced squad

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It has not been easy.

As a star player at Archbishop Shaw, Tommy Connors was accustomed to winning, even reaching state championship games.

At Southeastern Louisiana, he was a brilliant player for the Lions.

As an assistant coach at Shaw, he learned under mentor Scott Bairnsfather.

As a head coach succeeding Bairnsfather, Connors has taken on one of the largest challenges of any football program in Louisiana.

Archbishop Shaw is a school with a low Class 4A enrollment, choosing to participate in Class 5A in the storied Catholic League against bigger schools with more talent that are also well coached.

The result has been predictable.

Shaw has not won a district game in its three seasons under Connors while the Eagles have gone 4-24 overall in that time. Overall, Shaw has lost 27 consecutive district games and the Eagles have lost 29 games to district opponents overall since 2015, including a pair of playoff losses to Jesuit. The last district victory was a 42-39 win over St. Augustine on Oct. 10, 2015 at Tad Gormley Stadium.

That is no reflection on Connors, an excellent young coach with an excellent future in coaching.

It is a reflection of the disparity in numbers overall and in talent.

That gap may be shrinking in 2020.

After suffering through the last few seasons with a lack of numbers and talent in its junior and senior classes, the Eagles now have a growing and more experienced team in 2020.

A total of 17 players return who started games in 2019. That includes seven on offense and 10 on defense.

Most notably, the Eagles have four starters returning along its big offensive line while a fifth would have been a starter a year ago but missed the season due to injury.

Speaking on All Access on 106.1 FM Monday night, Connors admitted that while the outlook is certainly brighter, the darkness of dealing with not being able to convene as a team yet has been a challenge.

“It is difficult,” Connors said. “I don’t think there is any question about it. We are used to having summers where 11-on-11 with your team are a norm. We are going through the whole summer thinking Sept. 4 will be our first game. That’s looking highly questionable but that’s the way you prepare for it not knowing if you are ready or not.”

The Eagles are in the second year of a cycle of choosing to play up to 5A to compete with its Catholic League brethren. How Shaw fares in the 2020-2021 athletic school year may very well determine whether the Eagles choose to continue to do so in the 2021-22 school year or to play to its enrollment classification of 4A.

“Absolutely,” Connors said. “There’s multiple ways to look at it. They re-district every two years now. Whether you choose to go up or choose to play in your classification and we’re smaller 4A by our actual numbers, whether you do it or not, it isn’t an unforgivable mistake in the long term but each team deserves being put into the best situation to compete. You try to make it a 2-year decision at a time.

We’ve been in the Catholic League, we enjoy being in the Catholic League. There is some pride that goes into being in the Catholic League. For this year, we’re definitely in it. Hopefully, we can get all six games in on our district schedule.”

The returning experience has Connors very enthused about the future of the program.

“I think the only calming affect that I’ve had through this whole offseason was everybody’s preparing new starters and we started six freshmen in the Catholic League last year,” Connors said. “I don’t think we played against six freshmen combined with our entire Catholic League schedule. Returning guys have definitely given me a comfort level for our team. They make us pretty confident.”

Not only is the talent and experience improving, so are the numbers.

“Last year, we dressed out 55 on the varsity level,” Connors said. “This year, we will dress out 70. The depth issue will always be a problem. I don’t think that ever goes away but going from 55 to 70 may get you a couple more special teams guys. Our depth is improved. The returning starter numbers is probably the best in the district.”

There is one thing the Eagles must avoid in 2020.

“Last year, the injury bug hit us like I’ve never seen,” Connors said. “Whether that is due to playing a million snaps or not, I’m not sure.”

Shaw will have a chance to possess the ball more, a necessity.

“I think our play-making ability is better,” Connors said. “We struggled to make first downs versus a well rounded defense last year.”

Connors expounded on the experience he will have this season.

“We started two seniors last year,” Connors said. “Dorian Lewis was the blue and he tore his ACL week six. Everyone got a year older and a year bigger. The question mark is last year, we were out-sized and sometimes out-athleticized. This year, we’ll have 11 guys who belong out there. It makes everyone a better football player.”

Connors sees the Catholic League as balanced with no team that will most likely go unbeaten and capture a state title as Archbishop Rummel did last year.

“I don’t know how many districts in the state where four or five teams have a shot at winning the league,” Connors said. “We want to have a shot, too! I don’t think anybody can have the defense had last year. Those guys were multi-year starters. If you looked at Curtis’ offense last year, I’ve been coaching 10 years and it was the best offense of a Curtis team I have seen.

The balance is clearly there. Those teams will be good again, as will St. Aug, Holy Cross and Brother Martin and Jesuit is always solid. When you ask me next month to put them in order, I’m sure I don’t even know what order I would put them in.”

How important would it be for Shaw to finally get a district victory?

“When I was in high school, Coach Bairnsfather was kind of doing a similar thing from the perspective of going 0-10 in his first year as head coach. What ended up happening and I never thought about it but we ended up beating a Brother Martin team a couple of years later. We were 2-8 but that district win really sent us good into the offseason. We understood we could compete.”

Believing that you can compete and believing you can win is an imperative mindset for the Eagles to adopt.

“As teenagers, that’s a big part of it,” Connors said. “I don’t think you can understate how big a district win would be. We’ve creeped into a few of them. We haven’t been able to get past it in the fourth quarter. For us, I think it’s more of now, I think our squad is good enough to make a push in the fourth quarter and keep it a game deep into the game. I just want to see our guys get into the fourth quarter. How it plays out, I’m not sure.”

What you can be sure of is that Connors and his staff will work extremely hard and that his 2020 Eagles will be more solid, ready to fly a big higher than in recent years.

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