Outfitted in his North Andover High School apparel, Ryan Connolly crouched on the sideline last Sunday morning, watching his Scarlet Knights run through a few plays.
Five seconds into the first drill of practice, the 5-foot-10 Connolly blew his whistle, demanding that the play be rerun, his attention to detail in line with the man he is replacing as coach.
The 30-year-old Connolly is taking over for his father, Steve, who capped a 42-year coaching run with a 13-year stint at North Andover, building the program from the ground up.
“My dad had a tough decision to make. When I was a sophomore [in high school], my dad left the Billerica team he had built in the ’70s and he came here,’’ said Connolly. “He made a big sacrifice to coach me, and I’m really grateful for that.’’
Suiting up for his father, Connolly had a magnificent career, piling up 208 goals and 93 assists, and was the Globe’s Division 2 Player of the Year and an All-American as a senior before heading off to a four-year playing career at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The elder Connolly graduated from UMass in 1969, also lettering in lacrosse.
The link to State U and the Minuteman lacrosse program continued with youngest son Jimmy, who is now playing for the Ohio Machine of Major League Lacrosse.
In his first season at the helm of the program, Ryan Connolly will call upon a great deal of what he learned watching his father work the sideline over the years.
“The way [my father] relates to kids is pretty unbelievable,’’ said Connolly, who earned a master’s degree at Amherst after graduating from UMass. He is a history teacher at the high school.
“He’s got such a great way about him; he’s passionate about the game but he understands that things like family and academics come way before lacrosse. It’s been an interesting transition, because I’ll see something and figure out one or two ways to cover it, but he’ll see three, four, five, six ways to do it. So the wealth of knowledge he has is just unbelievable.’’
Connolly’s dad still has a voice with the program, as the junior varsity coach. And according to his son, he is not afraid to weigh in.
“I don’t know if you can ever make the impact he did,’’ said Connolly. “All the years, all the wins - hopefully that’s something that works itself out over time.
“Coming out of college I thought I knew all the answers, and then I came here to coach with him and I realized there was so much still left to learn.’’
And there is work to do.
The Scarlet Knights finished the 2011 season at 11-9 overall, falling to Concord-Carlisle in the Division 2 tournament. This season, according to senior middie Jimmy Warden, will be different.
“We work hard, day in and day out at practice, doing the little things,’’ said the captain. “Whatever Coach Connolly needs done, we make sure to get it done.
“Coach still has the competitive edge that he instills in the team, which will definitely be a different type of edge [than] we’re used to. We feed off his energy and competitiveness whenever we take the field, which is definitely going to help.’’
He and fellow captain Steve O’Grady are two of only four seniors on the roster.
“We have a very strong junior class this year that learned a lot from all the game experience they got last year,’’ said O’Grady, a long-pole defenseman.
“With only four seniors, the juniors have stepped up nicely in the leadership roles. With this we’ve had more intense practices because everyone knows what to expect from each other.’’
The elder Connolly believes his son has what it takes to guide the young North Andover squad to a successful season. He watched him play since youth lacrosse, coached him in high school, and mentored him through his college playing days.
“Ryan was a very good, accomplished lacrosse player and he knows what you need to do to excel at such a high level,’’ he said.
“He’s younger in terms of relating to the kids, and the kids at that age are what kept me young with their life and fire, so I know they’ll definitely feed off his energy.’’
After two weeks of intense practices, the Scarlet Knights kicked off the regular season Tuesday against Peabody, determined to make a strong run.
“There’s pressure with anything, but our guys are preparing themselves in the right way,’’ said Connolly.
“I tried to prepare myself in the right way this season with that same mindset, and I know the work they’ve put in will pay off.’’
Strong start for Westford
The Westford Academy boys made a statement by edging powerhouse Billerica in the season opener, 12-11, under new coach Matt Tholander, a two-year assistant for the Grey Ghosts who played at UMass Amherst.
“We opened up with a big win and our guys really played well,’’ said Tholander. “We played really well offensively and defensively, but at the same time, we can’t get caught up in the past because we have such a tough schedule, so we need to take each day as it comes.’’
Westford (15-7 a year ago) returns a strong senior class led by Cam Carlyle and excelled offensively early on, an aspect of their game Tholander says will make them or break them.
“We have some younger guys on the team, but we have a lot of great seniors, including guys like Jay Drapeau and Ian Speliotis, to help carry our offense,’’ said Tholander. “I believe, offensively, we are one of the toughest teams to stop.’’
Ryan MacInnis can be reached at email@example.com.