Jim Kelliher stood intently, his arms crossed as he watched his Abington High football team run a play on a practice field one afternoon last week.
The silver-haired head coach, in his 43d season on the Green Wave sideline, had a pencil and blue pen sticking out of his left sock, while a package of mouth guards was tucked into the right one. His playbook was showing out of the back of his navy blue athletic shorts.
Kelliher reached for a whistle on a green string around his neck, and stopped play with a “Go Again” order that echoed off nearby trees.
“I wouldn’t interrupt him,” said one voice from a cluster of players on the sideline. “He’ll kick you out.”
His commanding presence was also on full display early in his team’s 46-20 win at Norwell on Friday, when Kelliher yelled so fiercely about a bad play that he exhaled mist.
The Abington alum (class of 1966) had planned to close out his coaching career after last season and move to East Longmeadow with his wife, Elaine, to live with their daughter, Erin, and her husband. But Kelliher, already retired as an algebra teacher, had a change of heart when his wife died unexpectedly in April 2012 at 64 years old.
His love of football, his coaching staff, and the local community has kept him in Abington.
“Let’s realize it, I know I’m on the short end of my career,” Kelliher said. “I know I’m going to be finishing up pretty soon rather than later. But as long as I enjoy it and the administration thinks I can add something, I hope that I can be here, because I still like it.”
Kelliher has directed the Green Wave to a 4-1 start after last year’s perfect 13-0 run, which culminated with an Eastern Mass. Division 4 Super Bowl title. The team’s only loss this season came against Division 2 power Duxbury.
Matt Whalen, a senior captain this season, learned that Kelliher would be staying on as coach while he was riding the bus to Gillette Stadium for the Super Bowl matchup against St. Mary’s of Lynn — via Twitter.
The news flash prompted Whalen to abandon his plan to transfer to Cardinal Spellman for his senior year.
He said his commitment to his coach runs deep, and he laughed when he recalled his days as a midget player who thought that Kelliher, at 6 feet 2 and 248 pounds, was a giant.
“We were all scared of him,” Whalen said, “this big high school coach, but then you get there and you realize he’s this really great coach, really great guy, he’s not intimidating, and he’s a smart, polite gentleman.”
Now, Whalen is the giant.
“Whale,” as he is known, is 5-foot-10, but carries 210 pounds that he uses to his advantage. The linebacker has been a catalyst for an Abington defense that has held every opponent except one to fewer than two touchdowns.
Whalen and senior defensive tackle Steve Manning each registered key sacks in a 27-0 shutout of Randolph on Sept. 28. They adopted Kelliher’s mentality of hunting for goose eggs — they aren’t satisfied if they allow any touchdowns.
Whalen, who applied to Holy Cross and Penn State for academics, credits the Duxbury loss as an early turning point.
“For the team, it was confidence,” Whalen said. “We learned we can hang with some good teams. We play with this sense of quiet confidence, I think that was almost the best possible situation.”
Jim Connor, in his first year as the Norwell High coach, said the physicality of the Abington defense was “overbearing” in his team’s loss.
“We were able to get through and have some success,” Connor said. “But after a while it wears you down by the end. They’re tough kids and players. Vintage Abington.”
As head coach at North Quincy High the previous eight seasons, Connor often had his teams scrimmage against Kelliher’s program. His younger brother, Dan Connor , was a two-time All-American linebacker (2006, 2007) at Penn State while Kelliher’s son was a team manager for the Nittany Lions.
He said he puts Abington on a pedestal, adding that his program took a step forward by scoring 20 points against an aggressive Green Wave defense.
Kelliher expected the Green Wave to make their mark on defense; but he is especially pleased with its consistency, and the continued improvement of his team’s run and pass blocking.
Whalen said he takes each game as it comes, but there is potential for another title if the team “does its job” by continuing to play at a high level. He also wants to leave a lasting impression in his senior year.
“You never expect to win a Super Bowl,” Whalen said. “But it was almost like once we won it, we were like, what’s next? There’s always that drive.”
Foxborough’s Rogers finding his range as QB
Foxborough High junior quarterback Nolan Rogers (12 of 14, 126 yards) only missed his target twice in the Warriors’ 36-7 win over Milford on Friday. The first-year starter had a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, one by air and one rushing.
Coach Jack Martinelli said Rogers has “turned the corner” as a quarterback after a 37-0 shutout of Sharon the previous week, when he also ran for a successful 2-point conversion.
“He’s starting to take command out there on the field offensively,” Martinelli said. “He’s starting to run the ball himself with some authority, and the timing of all our routes and our passing attack has really matured in the last few weeks in terms of release.”
Martinelli said his quarterback, a backup to Mike Slaby last year, also does a good job of spreading the ball evenly between four or five receivers.
“I started a couple of games last year and my comfort level wasn’t where it’s at right now,” Rogers said. “Right now I feel this team is my team and the offense is with me, and we all work as a unit.”
Mixed results for teams changing field surfaces
Playing on its new artificial turf field for the first time, Hingham lost to Silver Lake Regional, 31-28. The Harbormen (2-3) suffered their first loss since two-year starting quarterback Joe Spaziani was sidelined by a broken tibia.
Meanwhile, Norwell retired its grass field with its 46-20 defeat to Abington last week. After playing its first five games at home, the Clippers will hit the road for their final three of the regular season while work on a new turf venue begins.
Xaverian Brothers christened the new Hawk Bowl this fall with a 49-13 upset of then No. 1 Bridgewater-Raynham Regional, and remain undefeated at home.