QB Matt O'Connell from tiny Clear Lake, Wis., attracted little interest from larger colleges, but St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso knew he'd be a standout.
Matt O'Connell's hometown of Clear Lake, Wis. -- population just over 1,000 -- is a relative urban metropolis when it comes to quarterbacks coached by Glenn Caruso.
Caruso's most notable signal-callers have been Wesley Beschorner (Lohrville, Iowa) at the University of South Dakota, and Dakota Tracy (Geneva, Minn.) at St. Thomas. The combined populations of Lohrville and Geneva do not equal 1,000.
Caruso, whose St. Thomas football team plays host to Hobart on Saturday in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals, says it's no coincidence his quarterbacks so often hail from places that are no more than dots on a map. Small towns, Caruso maintains, come with inherent advantages that are evident in O'Connell's maturity and leadership as a sophomore, first-year starter.
"In the smaller towns, the best athlete is usually the quarterback in football, the point guard in basketball and the pitcher in baseball -- so literally they have the ball in their hands their whole time growing up," Caruso said. "Plus, you get guys who understand the pressure of people looking at them for so many years."
O'Connell fits Caruso's description of a small-town star like a snug glove. He was a four-year, all-conference quarterback at Clear Lake High who amassed more than 10,000 total yards (5,465 rushing, 4,761 passing); an all-conference guard in basketball, leading his team in assists three times; and an all-conference and state meet qualifier in track.
Oh, yes, and a 4.0 student who was valedictorian of his senior class. A young man who so embraces his rural roots that he admitted to being concerned about his ability to adapt to St. Thomas' urban setting.
"I wasn't quite so sure, coming from a small town to the big city," he said. "But I really love the quiet, residential part of the city where St. Thomas is located. It's not like we're in downtown."
As far as adapting on the football field, no problem. O'Connell backed up senior starter Tracy last season and took over the QB job this season. In his first starting assignment in this year's opener, he rallied the Tommies from an 11-point deficit against Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the final 4 minutes by throwing for one TD and running for another.
Caruso calls O'Connell "a very calm, cool kid," qualities that were never more evident than last Saturday, when the Tommies fell behind Elmhurst 14-0 in the first quarter before rallying for a 24-17 victory. O'Connell completed 11 of 14 passes for 198 yards and ran for an additional 85 yards.
Folks in Clear Lake grew accustomed to such performances. Clear Lake coach Jason Sargent gushes with tales of O'Connell's athleticism, leadership and determination -- on and off the field -- and remains mystified his quarterback didn't receive more interest from Division I (no offers) or Division II (a handful) programs. He figures O'Connell's height (listed at 6 feet) and Clear Lake's small-school stature proved costly.
"We don't typically have someone from our conference make it to the state tournament," Sargent said. "I think that's part of it -- a lack of respect for our conference. ... I hope a lot of Division I and II schools are kicking themselves for missing out on the kid. I think he could have played at any level."
O'Connell said he was "kind of curious" about the relative lack of interest from bigger schools. But the young man who started a food drive at Clear Lake and is considering the ministry as a vocation said he didn't dwell on it and simply "tried to do the best I could with the hand I was dealt."
Caruso said his staff started following O'Connell during the quarterback's sophomore year at Clear Lake, making the Tommies among the first to take an interest. That helped land O'Connell, although probably not as much as meeting another small-town quarterback, Tracy, on his recruiting trip.
"We hit it off right away," O'Connell said. "Even during the recruiting process, we could relate to each other, probably because we're pretty similar in a lot of ways."
Beschorner, a record-setting QB at South Dakota with Caruso serving as offensive coordinator, was, like O'Connell, raised on a farm. Beschorner said that creates a toughness that helps in untold ways, including handling the intensity of a coach such as Caruso, whom Beschorner once described as being "no tougher than having to vaccinate 2,000 pigs in a weekend."
"No matter how tough football practice is, it's not tougher than working on a farm," said Beschorner, who succeeded Caruso as South Dakota's offensive coordinator and remains close to his former coach.
Driving a country road on a recruiting trip as he spoke, Beschorner said: "Sometimes, you have to go out of your way to see a kid. But it's just a treat to find kids in small towns."
That's something Caruso knows all about.
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