Finality hits hard for Eustace duo

McConnell (rear) takes a snap from Fitzpatrick (foreground) during drills. "They are amazing friends," Eustace coach Rob Cormier says.
McConnell (rear) takes a snap from Fitzpatrick (foreground) during drills. "They are amazing friends," Eustace coach Rob Cormier says.
Posted: November 23, 2013

As darkness descends on football practice fields across South Jersey, many seniors can look back on friendships forged through four years of shared sacrifice.

Others can recall relationships built through common experiences in middle school and youth football.

Bishop Eustace quarterback Tim McConnell and center Matt Fitzpatrick go back much farther than that.

The Crusaders' senior leaders have been best friends since they were 4 years old and teammates on a T-ball squad in Cinnaminson.

"We just hit it off right away," McConnell said. "We were best friends right away. He was always the big guy. I was the littler guy."

It's that time of the year: Cold shadows are creeping across the practice fields, night is falling before the coach blows the whistle for the last time of the day, and a sense of finality is filling every corner of the locker room.

It's one of the most poignant things about high school sports: the growing awareness of seniors that their time is running out.

McConnell and Fitzpatrick take that situation to another level. These guys have been together since before they enrolled in kindergarten.

They know all too well they might be down to their last few days on the same team - Friday's daunting visit to top-seeded, top-ranked, and undefeated Holy Spirit in the Non-Public 2 semifinals, and Wednesday night's annual Thanksgiving weekend game with Pennsauken.

"It's very bittersweet," Fitzpatrick said. "It seems like we've been together forever. We don't want to give it up."

Bishop Eustace coach Rob Cormier said the play and leadership of McConnell and Fitzpatrick have sparked the Crusaders to a successful season.

Eustace was 2-8 last season and lost its final eight games. When the Crusaders lost a lead and dropped a decision to Woodrow Wilson on opening day this season, that was nine setbacks in a row.

But with McConnell (10 rushing touchdowns) making plays with his legs and his arm, and Fitzpatrick leading the way along the line, Eustace has rallied to fashion a 5-4 record, score three wins over playoff teams (Cherry Hill West and Camden Catholic twice), and advance to the state semifinals.

"They are amazing friends, and it is crazy that they ended up at center and quarterback and both are playing at such a high level," Cormier said.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound McConnell fueled a comeback for a dramatic 16-14 win over rival Camden Catholic in the first round of the tournament last Friday, making play after play in the fourth quarter.

The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Fitzpatrick has been the Crusaders' most dominant player.

"He's been killing people," McConnell said.

Said Cormier, the Crusaders' seventh-year coach: "Matt may be the best offensive lineman we've had in my time."

McConnell and Fitzpatrick grew up in Cinnaminson, played youth baseball and basketball together, and were classmates at St. Charles Borromeo grammar school. Their families are tight.

"Sports has a lot to do with it," McConnell said. "We were always together."

Barring an upset of 9-0 Holy Spirit, which has won three state championships in a row, McConnell and Fitzpatrick are down to their last five days together as teammates.

Like all seniors, they are trying to squeeze the last drops of these dying days.

But unlike most others, their memories stretch back to T-ball.

"Every time I make a block, I know it's for him," Fitzpatrick said of McConnell. "Every time he makes a run, he's making me and the rest of the offensive line look good."


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/jerseysidesports

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