WEST NEWBURY — The idea had been mentioned for years, but Chris Croteau never believed it would really happen.
Could the Pentucket coaching staff really be considering moving Croteau, just 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds on his best days, well into his third season starting in the Pentucket backfield as either halfback or fullback, to the offensive line?
“Some of the coaches had been talking about it since I was a freshman,” said Croteau. “But I never really thought they were serious. Then, after the Masconomet game this season, coach (Steve) Hayden mentioned playing offensive line to me, and I realized there was a real chance it could happen.”
Just one week later, Croteau had changed his jersey number from No. 31 to No. 54 and was starting at guard for the Sachems. And the results have been better than anticipated.
Croteau quickly emerged as possibly the top offensive lineman for Pentucket, which tomorrow continues its improbable postseason run by hosting Bedford in the Division 4 North title game at 1:30 p.m.
“No one on this team has ever been in a game like this so everyone is really amped,” said Croteau, a Merrimac resident. “A lot of people were questioning us this season, but I really believed we were going to be a good team. I have played with a lot of these guys my whole life, so I believed in them. It’s really unreal, and a win (tomorrow) would be amazing.”
Growing up, playing offensive line was never a thought for Croteau, the star running back for the Pentucket Youth Football program.
“Of all the people I could have seen moving to offensive line, I never would have guessed it would have been Chris,” said longtime teammate and now linemate Reid Garrant, who stands roughly eight inches taller and outweighs Croteau by 70 pounds.
“Chris was a always a great running back in youth. I have played with him since sixth grade, and I always thought he would be a running back.”
Three years ago as a freshman — and only approximately 140 pounds after a good meal — Croteau immediately made an impact on the Sachem varsity team, earning a starting spot at linebacker. The jump from youth football to varsity — he admits — was a culture shock.
“It all went by so fast I don’t think I realized what was going on,” he said. “There were times I definitely felt like a boy among men. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility. But I tried to do my best and learn, and I think I did pretty good for a little guy.”
In fact, he shined at times for the Sachems that finished 8-3, making two crucial tackles with less than a minute left in a dramatic win over Marblehead and leading the team with nine tackles against Newburyport.
He continued to emerge as a sophomore, again playing linebacker and breaking into the lineup at running back, sharing a backfield with two-time Eagle-Tribune All-Star Nolan Dragon. Last season, in addition to his defensive duties, he took on one of the halfback roles on a more permanent basis, serving almost exclusively as blocking back for now UNH back Cody Rothwell, who wowed the state for 2,019 yards and 22 touchdowns on his way to Eagle-Tribune All-Star honors.
“I basically just blocked for Cody while he did his thing, which was quite impressive,” said Croteau. “All that blocking was actually really valuable for this season.”
Croteau opened his senior year this fall as a quad captain and starting linebacker and fullback. In the Sachems’ season-opening win over Amesbury he rushed for 117 yards and his first career touchdown on just eight carries.
But the move that had been rumored since his freshman year soon went into motion, and after four games, Croteau was moved to guard starting for the Sachems’ Cape Ann League Division 1 clinching victory over Saugus.
“I might have been a little disappointed at first because I loved playing fullback,” said Croteau. “But the team comes first and I understood they felt it was best to help the team win. What motivates me is helping the team win.”
He admits learning the new role in the Sachems’ trademark wing-T offense was a struggle early on.
“I kind of felt like I was learning football all over again,” he said. “I had been a running back my whole life. But guys like Chad (Legault), Reid, (Sean) Clohisy and (Shane) Ketola all helped me get the technique and learn the rules. Coach Hayden worked me pretty hard to learn my rules too. But I started to pick it up pretty quick.”
Croteau rapidly clicked at his new position. With the newcomer at left guard, Pentucket has rushed for at least 200 yards in three of the four games, including 301 in a tournament victory over Hamilton-Wenham.
His fellow linemen are thrilled — and a little surprised — by his emergence.
“Chris obviously isn’t the biggest guy in the world,” said Garrant. “But he definitely gets the job done. He is really strong and he is so tough. After all those years it’s crazy to have him up with us on the line.”
Even more surprising, Croteau is not only enjoying success, he is also enjoying being a lineman.
“This was definitely the right move for me and the team,” he said. “I had to learn to be more aggressive, but it has been fun.”
He has also continued to be a stalwart at linebacker, making 18 combined tackles in the Sachems’ two postseason games, for a defense that has allowed just 11.5 points per game this season.
Now he hopes that success carries into tomorrow’s North title game.
“I wish high school football never had to end,” said Croteau. “But if it has to end, why not go out with a bang. We are going to do everything we can to win.”
One of Croteau’s greatest contributions to the surprise Pentucket football team didn’t require a helmet or shoulder pads.
Instead, it required stellar salesmanship to talk his cousin, Josh Wesolowski, into play football.
Fast forward to 2013, and Wesolowski has emerged as Pentucket’s most consistent defensive player, manning the inside linebacker position next to his cousin.
“I had to work hard to convince him to play football,” said Croteau. “He had always been a soccer player to that point. Now he makes tackles that I can’t explain.