Roncalli quarterback Derek O’Connor received some simple yet valuable tips from his father, B.J. O’Connor, before the season started: “Enjoy playing your senior year because it will go fast. Listen to your coach, give it your all, play hard and good things will happen.”
And boy, did good things happen, most notably a ninth state championship for the Rebels and the seventh for coach Bruce Scifres.
But it was no cakewalk for Roncalli (15-0), which had to rely on the golden toe of senior Patrick Sandler to kick last-second field goals to defeat Lebanon and East Central in the tournament.
“There was a lot of pressure on him, and he came through on the road and in hostile environments,” said Derek O’Connor, who comes from a family of quarterbacks. His dad was the backup signal-caller for the Rebels’ 1988 state championship team and the 1989 runner-up squad before taking the helm in 1990. Derek’s grandfather, Bernie O’Connor, quarterbacked Sacred Heart High – a precursor to Roncalli – in 1961 and ’62.
“They both offered advice,” Derek said. “They are very knowledgeable about the game.”
When asked if they ever compared statistics, B.J. laughingly said, “Derek blows my stats out of the water. He passed me on his first game as a starter.”
Derek’s performance in the state title game – 31 carries for 154 yards and three touchdowns and 11-of-18 passing for 159 yards and a 70-yard scoring strike to Jacob Luedemann – earned him National Player of the Week honors from Varsity Views, a media organization that covers high school sports.
“That was quite an honor,” a humble Derek said. “But we won by playing as a team. We developed our confidence early this season. After we came back to defeat Southport on a last-second play in Week 1, we kind of thought the year could be special because we had not beat Southport in several years.
“We had a lot of close games. The defense won two games for us with goal-line stands. Those games made us a lot tougher. We learned to trust one another during crunch times.”
The tight games wore on B.J. “It was nerve-racking sitting in the stands,” he said. “I had a hard time sleeping and eating before the games. I was more nervous than Derek.”
On the other hand, Derek said his nerves calmed as game time approached. “Once I got hit all the butterflies were gone.”
For added inspiration a few days before the state championship game, about 100 of Roncalli’s players from the past 40 years stopped by the school’s locker room to offer words of encouragement.
Reflecting on Roncalli’s 34-22 win over Northwood in the 4A title game at Lucas Oil Stadium, B.J. commented, “Our fans came out in full force. Our side of the field was packed, and we were loud. Our players were just little kids when Roncalli last won the state title (in 2004).
In addition to his dad and grandfather, Derek’s private cheering section includes mom Kelley, siblings Kasey, Daniel and Alyssa and grandmother Jody. His maternal grandparents, John and Sandi Bruner, made it down from Warsaw for two games. Daniel is a seventh-grader at St. Barnabas School, and Derek expects him to play football for the Rebels.
“The season was absolutely phenomenal,” B.J. said. “It flew by. I had faith that they would pull it out. This is a solid group; they have no weaknesses.”
After each game a small group of parents met at a local pub. “I was tired after one game so I went home,” B.J. said. “But then someone called me and said I would jinx the team if I wasn’t there. So I went.”
Derek said that winning the title really didn’t sink in until returning to school after the Thanksgiving break. If fact, he’s not sure if it fully has.
As for his college plans, he is talking to a few schools about the possibility of playing football while weighing his academic options. “I’d like to attend college in Indiana or Ohio so I can be fairly close to home.”