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Tuesday, July 16 Sports

O’Neill returns to make more big plays for Pioneers

FAIRFIELD — College football coaches have long memories. Mark Nofri apparently is no exception.

Nofri, who is beginning his seventh season at the helm at Sacred Heart, remembers every detail of the first touchdown Andrew O’Neill ever scored in a Pioneers uniform, including the receiver’s ill-timed somersault into the end zone.

“Yeah, I got kind of mad,” Nofri said Tuesday with a grin. “Freshman year [2015 in a 34-27 loss to Marist], he scores a touchdown. We were going to take the lead on the extra point, and because he dove and did a somersault into the end zone, they gave us 15 yards and we missed the extra point.

“So, we did not take the lead. We ended up losing the game that day. It was late in the fourth quarter, too, when that all happened.”

Sure, Nofri could’ve done without the theatrics. But if nothing else, the jaw-dropping 55-yard catch-and-run that made it possible left an impression on O’Neill’s teammates.

“He took a simple 5-yard out play into a touchdown. … It was nice,” senior running back Eli Terry recalled with a smile.

O’Neill, a fifth-year senior, has steadily developed into one of Sacred Heart’s biggest playmakers. He caught a team-high 59 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns across 11 games last year, and was one of six Pioneers to land on the All-Northeast Conference Second Team.

Of those six players, only O’Neill will take the field Saturday for Sacred Heart’s season opener against visiting Lafayette.

“Going against O’Neill every day is probably the reason I’m where I’m at right now,” said senior outside linebacker Kevin Sears, one of four starters returning on defense. “He’s definitely one of the best receivers I’m going to see this year, if not the best receiver. As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten craftier and he’s gotten better.”

O’Neill fits the profile of a productive slot receiver. He is quick, instinctive, has good hands, and is not overly big (5-foot-11, 185 pounds).

For a team lacking experience, especially at wide receiver — the Pioneers return only three players who had double-digit catches last year, one being running back Jordan Meachum — O’Neill’s presence is invaluable. He’s a veteran voice, respected by teammates and adored by coaches.

“Listen, I love Andrew,” Nofri said. “He’s a great kid. … He takes the younger kids under his wing. He plays hard. He plays hard and he makes plays. Football is important to him.”

After graduating in May, O’Neill could have chosen to spend this year elsewhere. O’Neill said earlier this summer at Northeast Conference Social Media Day that he had weighed a few options before deciding to come back to Sacred Heart, including attending graduate school closer to his hometown of Sewell, N.J.

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Ultimately, though, O’Neill could not leave his team — or his quarterback.

“He’s a big reason why I came back for my fifth year,” O’Neill said of Kevin Duke, who threw for 2,596 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last year. “We live together off campus. We do a lot of things together off campus. We’re always hanging out socially or watching film together, whatever it is.

“We have a really good relationship. I think that helps because I can be honest with him if he’s not playing his best, and he’s the same way with me.”

Added Duke, half-joking: “I know where he’s going to be in situations and he knows where I’m going to be. ... I hang out with the kid every day, so whether I like it or not, he’s going to be around.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour