MADISON — He scored five touchdowns last week in the most-anticipated Connecticut high school football game in years. His Hand-Madison Tigers beat the No. 1 team in the state hands down in the second half, ending Xavier-Middletown's 30-game winning streak.
Throw in a handsome shock of light brown hair, blue eyes and a scholarship to State U, and yeah, life is good these days for Matt Walsh.
How abruptly it can end Friday night.
"We saw how Xavier felt after their loss," Walsh said Thursday before Hand, the new No. 1 in the state polls, made final preparations for No. 8 West Haven. "We know how hard it was for us to get to this point and we're not going to let it slip. It's time for us to play like we are the No. 1 team in the state."
Walsh is a tackling machine at middle linebacker. He amassed 170 last year and he continues in his senior season to terrorize. Yet it wasn't a sideline-to-sideline tackle against West Haven or Casey Cochran's Masuk team last season that cemented Walsh's chance to live his dream of playing for UConn.
It was a block. And it was the first play from scrimmage in the CIAC Class L state championship victory over New Canaan at Rentschler Field.
"We ran a power play where Matt was supposed to lead on a corner, but the corner bailed for some reason," Hand coach Steve Filippone said. "Matt did a beautiful job looking back inside and walling off an inside linebacker."
He sprang Kevin Frey for a 70-yard touchdown run. When it was over, Hand had clobbered New Canaan, 34-10. And Walsh? He had an important believer.
"Matt's adjustment set the tone for the game," Filippone said. "He dragged some tacklers with him on a few runs, too. George DeLeone [UConn offensive coordinator] was at the game and he called me the next day and said, 'This kid can play for us.' "
Delaware offered Walsh a scholarship as a linebacker. Temple looked at him seriously. UMass talked to him several times. BC expressed interest before pulling out. There were a slew of I-AA schools. Yet when UConn offered him a scholarship in August, it took him one day to decide. Walsh and his family drove the 55 miles to Storrs and went into coach Paul Pasqualoni's office.
"It was Media Day," Walsh said. "They had an hour free. We made the decision right away. I always loved the place. To be able to play for your home state, there's no better feeling. We started going to watch UConn when I was in the fifth of sixth grade."
Filippone played for Pasqualoni and DeLeone at Southern Connecticut in the 1970s.
"If there are two finer guys in the world somebody tell me who they are," Filippone said. "To have one our kids under their wing is something we're really happy about."
Although Walsh is essentially a part-time offensive player at Hand, Filippone is in agreement with UConn's decision to recruit him as a fullback.
"No question," said Filippone. "He is fast enough, certainly tough enough for fullback. He'll weigh 235 to 240 by the time he gets up there. I don't know if he's flat-out fast enough at linebacker, he's a 4.7 [in the 40] type kid. They want those linebackers to cover guys out of the backfield and down field. He may not be able to do that. I will say that if they're in a pinch for a linebacker he's where I'd start looking. At I-AA, he could definitely play linebacker."
Walsh favorite players? Well, he was raving about Yawin Smallwood and Sio Moore.
"Linebacker is my main position now," Walsh said. "But I want to play the position that will get me on the field the fastest. So fullback is what I'm most excited about. I played almost the entire second half [against Xavier] but they usually only put me in when they need another dimension on offense. They want to keep me healthy."
Can the kid block?
"Extraordinary," Filippone said. "He absolutely blows people up."
Can he run?
"He's not running away from defenses, but he's tough to tackle," Filippone said. "He has great leg drive and tremendous strength in his hips. And he's very good at catching the ball. He played wide receiver as a freshman."
Filippone said Walsh would be the best player at virtually every position on his team.
"Matt is smart and he's relentless in his performance and preparation," Filippone said. "On the field, he calls all our signals. Off the field, he lifts the extra day to improve strength."
Yet it is Walsh's ability to help his teammates find their strengths that Filippone says is his unique quality.
"He is one of the few kids who really understands how to lead," said Filippone, who has won six state titles at Hand. "This is my 24th season, I've probably had about 60 captains and he's in the top five in that category.
"He has a great quality of not demanding of others what he does, but do the best they can do. He's not telling them be like me, it's you got to find out what works for you."
Filippone did get a chuckle out of all the reports how Walsh led Hand in the 40-20 triumph over Xavier with his five TDs.
"His offensive performance was overrated," Fillipone said, laughing. "He had the ball in his hands five times and he scored five touchdowns on like 27 yards. That's all we asked him to do. Defensively, he was magnificent."
After playing what Filippone called a lousy first half, the Tigers were down only 20-14.
"At halftime, there was no panic," he said. "I asked them, 'After all the hype, do you think those guys in the other locker room are invincible?' They looked me in the eye and said, 'No way.' They knew after the first half Xavier was just another team and we were the better team and we were going to win."
"They knew what was at stake," he said. "They probably played the best game they have this year. So did we. It was too much for them."
Because the entire Connecticut focus was on this one game, Filippone said, it was a bigger-than-state championship environment.
"Now all of a sudden we have to come out here, refocus and convince them the team we're playing this week is better than Xavier. Our message: 'Guys you climbed to the top of the mountain and you may only be there for five days.' "
West Haven better than Xavier? Really?
"I think they are," Filippone said. "They're not as good on defense maybe. With Xavier you've got to stop DeAngelo Berry and Tim Boyle from throwing the ball to good but not tremendous receivers. The whole deal with Xavier is Berry is going to run the ball on these three plays and nobody in 30 games figured out how to stop them. We did."
Berry, averaging 190 yards per game, had 48.
"West Haven can hit you from three different directions with different backs," Filippone said. "Berry lined up next to Boyle every snap. Ervin Phillips is going to be at wing, slot, fullback, he throws the option pass. You can't play a static defense. He can hurt you in a 100 ways. To me that makes them a far more dangerous offense."
Matt Walsh, soon of State U, will be ready.