By Bob York
No matter the player your allegiance was directed to … regardless of the uniform number you sought out first, if you followed Big Green football this fall, there’s a good chance you wound up being a member of the Phan Club, too.
At 5-5 and 160 pounds, Thuc Phan looked as though he was practicing with the wrong team, that he should have been returning punts for the JVs, rather than the varsity. But once one of those punts had settled into his arms, it became perfectly clear why he was where he was. What he lacked in size, he made up for in speed and quickness. “And in the blink of an eye, he’d be gone,” said Deerfield head coach Mike Silipo.
“Pound for pound, Thuc was one of the premier runners we’ve ever had here at Deerfield,” added Silipo of the All-League nominee, who zigged and zagged his way to 727 yards in rushing and scored 10 touchdowns in just seven games this fall. Plus, he was the Big Green’s main return man. Phan averaged nearly 20 yards per return on punts, “while he did much better with kickoffs,” explained Silipo, where he averaged over 32 yards per try in that category.
“He was simply electric,” continued Silipo. “Watching him out there doing what he does on the football field was like flipping on a switch … he’d inspire the rest of his teammates.”
Unfortunately for Phan and his teammates, this past campaign wasn’t exactly the kind they had envisioned. This fall’s rendition of Big Green football won two of its first three games before dropping its final four to end up at 2-5.
“We kept fighting, but we just didn’t have enough bullets, ” said Phan in reference to a frustrating season and the kind of campaign he is simply not used to. The diminutive speedster who hails from Greensboro, NC earned a berth in the state’s annual East-West High School All-Star Game following his senior season that saw him earn both All-Conference and All-Area laurels. In fact, the game, which features the state’s top seniors, saw Phan collect the lone invite from Greensboro – a city that features 11 high schools.
“The real heartbreaker this season was a one-point (27-26) loss to Exeter,” said defensive coordinator Chip Davis. Then, one week later, Deerfield’s game against Andover – which went winless this season – was rained out. The Big Green also had two other tough losses this fall, a 27-21 setback at the hands of Loomis-Chaffee and a 16-6 defeat to Avon.
Deerfield’s shortcoming this season came in the scoring column, where it rang up just 135 points, or an average of only 19 points per game after closing out three of its outings with nothing more to show for its efforts on the scoreboard than a single digit. And contributing to that fact was the lack of bulk up front.
“More often than not we were greatly undersized in the offensive line,” explained Silipo, “and it took its toll.”
Hopefully, those boys up front will continue to grow, however, as four of the five starters will return for at least one more season. Center Patrick Oberbeck (14), who stood in at 200 pounds, will be back, as will guards Ray Horgan (13) and JR Mastro (13), who weighed in at 200 and 174 pounds respectively and have been voted as co-captains of next year’s team.
At the tackle slots, one’s back, while the other’s gone. Connor Manson (14), who tipped the scales at 225 pounds, will be around for two more seasons, while Jeff Van Oot (12), a four-year letterman and the winner of this year’s Dahowski Spirit Award, paced the poundage up front at 258 pounds, will graduate this spring.
Quarterback Patrick Dugan (12) completed 50 percent of his passes this season for 570 yards. His primary receiver was Harry Glor (12), who hauled in 25 passes worth 320 yards, while tight end Brian Pickup (12), who was the recipient of this year’s Thomas Ashley Award, and Ian Ardrey (12) finished with 14 and 12 catches respectively. Tom Flibotte (12) was the backup to Phan at tailback, but still managed to pick up just over 300 yards in rushing.
Over on the defensive side of the Big Green’s ledger, Patrick Ononibaku (14), Alec Webster (13) and Pickup were the ends, while Horgan, Mastro and Van Oot were the tackles. The linebackers were Evan Gaudio (12), who was second on the team in tackles this fall with 54, and John Jackson (14). The secondary, meanwhile, consisted of Nic Mahaney (12), the Big Green’s leading tackler with 77, at strong safety, and Cam Lee (12) at free safety. The cornerbacks were Bob Gray (12) and Ardrey.
“Thuc’s story is an incredible one,” said Silipo. “He came to the United States from Vietnam with his family when he was 3 years old … and he’s made the most of the opportunity.
“I just can’t say enough good things about him,” added the Big Green mentor. “He’s a great kid … he has a tremendous work ethic and he inspired the rest of the team with his hard work. And physically, he’s top notch … he runs the 40-yard dash in 3.8 seconds and he bench presses 295 pounds. And I’m certain that if he had a few more inches on him, some ACC team would have recruited him by now. “
Phan, who has received some interest from Dartmouth, Brown, Holy Cross and Colgate, “but I haven’t heard anything definite yet,” has been playing football since he was in seventh grade and the Pee Wee League teams he played for in Greensboro during the seventh, eighth and ninth grades all won state championships.
“I started out playing at nose guard,” recalled Phan of those Pee Wee days, but that wasn’t his first choice as far as positions were concerned.
“I always wanted to be a running back … I always wanted to carry the ball,” added Phan, who got his chance to do so at the outset of his second season. “We were playing in a jamboree and the coach gave me a chance to go in as a running back and I’ll never forget the first time I ever carried the ball … one of their bigger linemen broke through and really popped me … I think he knocked me back about eight yards. It was a rough start, but it didn’t stop me … I’ve been a running back ever since.”
Figures, because there’s nothing little about the way Thuc Phan thinks. The way he sees it: “I’m short … but I’m not small!”