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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

McKenna showing his stuff to East team

Christian McKenna is soaking it all in this summer – the sun, the Exeter High School turf, the coaching from a Granite State legend, and of course, the football.

Between Saturday’s CHaD New Hampshire East-West High School All-Star Football Game at Saint Anselm College and the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl at Dartmouth College Aug. 2, these three months mark the end of McKenna’s football playing days. ...

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Christian McKenna is soaking it all in this summer – the sun, the Exeter High School turf, the coaching from a Granite State legend, and of course, the football.

Between Saturday’s CHaD New Hampshire East-West High School All-Star Football Game at Saint Anselm College and the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl at Dartmouth College Aug. 2, these three months mark the end of McKenna’s football playing days.

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” said McKenna, who will be going to football-less Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston to study architecture. “That’s another big reason why I wanted to do both the CHaD and Shriner games. It is my last two chances to play real competitive football. At the end of the season it really just hit me like ‘Wow, this is my last game.’

“Then getting those two letters in the mail saying I had been picked was just another great step for me in my path for football. I’m blessed to be on both teams.”

While it’s still weird for him to consider his football days almost over, he’s trying to focus on more than just game preparation.

He’s participating in this event because he loves the sport, and the true meaning behind these all-star games. For McKenna, like in high school, it’s about giving one’s best effort on and off the field.

“It’s sort of surreal,” McKenna said. “Football has been a huge part of my life, since like fourth grade, so coming out here and stepping on the field these last few times – every time I just want to give 100 percent.

“Walking on the field and being here for the kids too. That’s what this game is all about, raising money. It’s more about thinking of what we can do for the hospital than ourselves, but being out here on the football field these last few days has really been a blessing.”

The Campbell High School graduate had plenty of good days on the gridiron during a senior season that saw him throw for more than 1,500 yards in an offense implemented by first-year coach Greg Gush in late August.

“We learned an offense in two weeks before the season started, which turned into a 2,000-yard offense in Division III against teams we had never played against,” said McKenna, whose 5-3 Cougars missed the playoffs because they just happened to be in the best conference. “I think we accomplished as much as we could. We really started to build a system there at Campbell.”

It’s McKenna’s ability to soak up all the information so quickly that makes him a perfect choice for an all-star team, which gives players less than two weeks of training.

Luckily for McKenna, the East team, coached by former Bishop Guertin football coach and athletic director Tony Johnson, is running a mix of formations the Cougars star has plenty of practice in – some spread and I-formation along with a few new wrinkles he’s learning. According to Johnson, the lone Campbell representative for the CHaD game has looked good in the limited time he’s seen him.

“He’s not real fast,” Johnson said, “but he can run the spread option and the regular spread. We’re teaching him the regular option stuff that we normally did, but he can do both. When I watched him on tape, I thought this is a pretty good athlete.

“He missed a practice and I gave the guys another day off so I’ve only seen him once so far, and he did a good job. I was like this guy can throw and he can run, so I was very, very impressed with him.”

That’s good news for McKenna, who is fighting for the starting quarterback spot on the East team against some talented individuals.

The East roster includes Gilford’s Jack Athanas, who also threw for 1,500 yards in Division III action; Dover’s Derek Stegman, a 1,200-yard passer in Division I; and Portsmouth’s Donovan Phanor, who threw for more than 1,100 yards in Division II.

Phanor is trying to stay on the field as he recuperates from an injury, unlike Winnacunnet’s IngHao Veasna (Division I leading 1,693 passing yards), who is a definite scratch due to injury.

It’s a crowded and talented field, according to East athletic director and volunteer assistant coach Andy Vailas. He’s liked everything he’s seen from the quartet, and he’s taken a real liking to the athletic ability of McKenna.

“It’s obvious to me that he hasn’t had as much training at quarterback as some of these other guys,” said Vailas of McKenna, “but he has such raw, natural ability. I’ve been able to work closely with him and aside from a few little things he still needs to work on – reads and footwork – he’s really progressing and picking up on things quickly.

“We still have a week left in practice, and haven’t decided who will start yet. We have an idea, but I can say he is still in the running.”

Even Johnson raved about McKenna’s athletic ability. It’s a major reason he was selected to play for the East. Vailas knows Johnson well, having played for him at Bishop Guertin. He knows what the coach wants in a quarterback, and sees it all in what McKenna brings to the field.

“He’s a very athletic kid,” Vailas said. “Coach Johnson loves that, and from what I’ve seen he’s a great athlete. He’s a well-rounded kid, who can run and throw. The first day he was here I had one-on-one time with him. Knowing the option would be implemented, I had him run up and down the sideline pitching the ball to me. He could do it, and do it well. Then he gets under center or in shot gun and you can see he can throw it.

“There are still those reads and the footwork to lock down, but there were a couple of times it looked like he messed up and still managed to make a positive play out of it because he could recover and improvise on the fly.”

Not bad praise from a Division I scholarship quarterback for a Division III high schooler playing with the elite of Division I and II.

“Litchfield has always been a very secluded town,” McKenna said. “Being out here with all these guys is a whole new game. Especially with some of these D-I kids. Seeing the talent, it’s a whole new game for me.

“I really don’t come out here thinking I have anything personally to prove, but I would like to show that talent does come from all three divisions. That’s always been something people have said, that there’s no talent in D-III. I know I can speak for the other D-III guys that we really want to show what Division III can do.”

But the entire experience is most importantly about showing what the entire team can do to raise money for the children they’ve visited in the hospital. Being selected as an all-star for this game isn’t all about X’s and O’s.

“To me this is more of an honor than anything,” McKenna said, “especially coming from a small school like Campbell where you haven’t had a lot of big names come out of there. So it’s really just a blessing for me to be out here – especially to raise money for the kids. That’s what it’s all about. It’s more than the football aspect of things. It’s about representing my town, representing my school and raising money for the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. So it’s a blessing to be out here and I’m just glad I got picked.

“It’s a great experience. It really just makes you feel like you’re lucky to do what we’re doing out here.”

“We were picked as some of the greatest football players in the state, and watching these kids going through so much at such a young age, you really feel lucky to be able to do what you can do.”