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Flames Senior Feature: Mike Connolly
As LibertyFlames.com continues to provide coverage of Liberty's football team throughout its bye week, the web site will be providing a look at six of this year's senior players. Each of the next six days, the web site will release a feature story written about six members of its 17 graduating senior class.
Today's feature is about senior linebacker Mike Connolly. This story was the feature story for the Sept. 10 Flames Illustrated game day program (Robert Morris game). Connolly, a defensive team captain, is one of seven defensive players who have started all 10 games this season. He currently has 37 tackles to his credit (18 solo, 19 assisted) and has helped the Flames' defense rank No. 25 in total defense (323.90 yards allowed per game) and No. 21 in scoring defense (20.10 points allowed per game).
Back and Ready to Make the Last One Count
"For a just man falls seven times and rises up again…" Proverbs 24:16
Mike Connolly got his chance to make the starting line-up last season. He made key tackles and was in on many big plays. He was also instrumental in the Flames' upset victory over Ball State, recovering the fumble that sealed the program's second victory over a FBS foe.
"I thought I was playing strong," said the Sarasota, Fla., native. "It was my first year starting. I felt pretty confident and doing what I was coached to do."
Then the Homecoming game against Charleston Southern came, and Connolly's season ended with a knee injury. An impressive aspect occurred on the play after he suffered the injury as he came up with a tackle, the final of his junior season.
"I actually knew when (the injury) happened because I pulled my other ACL in high school. I felt the pop," he recalls.
Connolly's season was over, but his reaction was very business-like and proactive. He had to get himself ready for next season.
"I told myself that I've been through this before. I knew what to expect. It was just a matter of doing the work and putting the time in for rehabilitation. This also gave me an opportunity to sharpen the mental aspect my game," he said.
Getting healthy and enhancing his performance is important for Connolly and the Flames. The senior is the lone experienced leader of the young linebacker unit this season. The early season depth chart features Connolly starting alongside redshirt freshman Nick Sigmon and sophomore Scott Hyland.
"It is different being the sole senior, but it's a great responsibility and a privilege to work with these guys," Connolly said. "We do have a young corps, but with the coaching we have, starting with Coach (Danny) Rocco and then Coach (Wally) Ake with Coach (Manny) Rojas, we are making a big push. The guys know we are young, but everybody's stepping up, taking responsibility and doing their roles."
Connolly's determination and resiliency is a great illustration of the team's theme this year, "The Quest Continues." The "Quest" for the Flames involves pursuing a fifth-straight Big South Conference title and continuing to seek their first-ever NCAA FCS Playoff bid.
"For me, the ‘Quest' began four years ago when I entered the program. Liberty was trying to make a name for itself, trying to get out of a slump," he said. "The initial goal was to win the Big South title, which we did in 2007 and have continued to win."
"But now that we have accomplished winning multiple conference championships, we're trying to move on to our next goals, which are making the playoffs and eventually winning a national championship," continued Connolly.
The linebacker mentioned some of his fellow seniors, including quarterback Mike Brown, wide receivers Chris Summers and B.J. Hayes and tight end Tommy Shaver, who were a part of the spark in 2007 that got the Flames going on their conference title run.
"This year is critical in our journey," he said. "It's more relevant now because this senior class has been there from the beginning, and we want to prolong it and build on the success of this football program."
Today's game is a big part of prolonging the Flames' success. Connolly is looking forward to playing in front of potentially 20,000-plus in the remodeled Williams Stadium.
"It is definitely exciting. We have a big freshman class at the University this year, adding to our already great fan support," Connolly said. "It will be our second season in the new stadium. It will be our first home opener in the stadium."
"This is one of the greatest times of the year," he said. "We spend all these weeks practicing and preparing for the season. It's a nice feeling having family and friends come out to support us, and it makes all those weeks of training worth it."
Liberty's rematch against Robert Morris also is much anticipated. The Colonials collected the victory last season in their first-ever battle with the Flames, but Connolly knows Liberty has a different approach against the home-opener foe this time around.
The Colonials secured one of the best wins in program history, scoring on a late touchdown to seal a 30-23 victory over the Flames. The seven-point win ignited an eight-game win streak for Robert Morris which landed them in the NCAA FCS Playoffs after claiming the Northeast Conference title. The Colonials are one of three opponents Liberty has on its schedule that did advance to the 20-team NCAA FCS Playoff field last season.
"It will be a good matchup," he said. "They have a really good team. Last year, we physically and mentally were not focused. We came off the high of beating Ball State and playing in-state rival James Madison, so our minds weren't where they needed to be. It was a lesson learned. We understand how we have to take this season game-by-game – prepare and execute the game plan every week."
After graduation, Connolly plans to be a strength coach. He is an exercise science major with a minor in sport management.
"I have always been interested in kinesiology," he said. "I consider myself an enthusiast of physical fitness. One of my major attractions in coming to Liberty was to be around (LU strength coach) Bill Gillespie. He has been a great inspiration for me to go into strength and conditioning. I enjoy working out with other student-athletes and also helping them prepare for competition."
Liberty has made a difference in Connolly's life. He knows being a member of the Flames football team and being a Liberty student has made an impact on his personal outlook.
"Being at Liberty has helped prepare me for certain situations in life," he said. "The Christian environment has definitely opened my eyes. I've grown deeper in my faith. I have enjoyed the great academic program Liberty offers. The faculty has been wonderful. The facilities are great. Everybody on campus has a vibrant look on life. It's a great overall environment."
Chris Doyle is a freelance writer for Liberty Athletics