Over the last two seasons, Tony Pensa has found not only a new home with Guilford football, but also carved quite a niche with the Indians.
The junior began high school as a freshman at Notre Dame-West Haven, but then transferred home sophomore year. Once on the Indians' squad, Tony was a backup halfback to current senior K.C. Horton last fall while being a strong safety on defense. Following solid offseason development and growing chemistry with his quarterback, Tony has developed into a top weapon at wide receiver with 22 receptions for 487 yards and 11 touchdowns this season for the SCC Division II West champions.
"We ran a two-back option offense last year with a lot more wide receivers for stalk blocking, but this year we moved to a single-back offense and I moved to receiver," says Tony, a junior who averages 21.05 yards a catch. "[Senior quarterback and fellow defensive back] Joe Nault and I got into a rhythm and he's helped me a lot with building our chemistry together on offense. My journey has been a good one. I developed into the receiver I wanted to become."
Head Coach Tom Unger states that Tony adds an extra skill with his blocking abilities.
"We moved him to receiver full-time this year and he has quickly become Joe Nault's favorite target. He not only has great hands, but we average almost 300 yards rushing per game due to his great effort blocking on run plays," says Unger. "Tony works very hard in the weight room and on the field to get stronger and faster. After attending the 'Grip It and Rip It' 7-on-7 tournament at New Canaan this past summer, we had a feeling we could expect good things. We matched up with St. Joseph's on the second day, and Joe and Tony must have hooked for at least four touchdowns in our win. Hopefully Tony's success at Guilford encourages other top players to stay home and play for Guilford."
Tony's tailback past has helped him grow a more smash-mouth style at the line of scrimmage.
"At halfback, I had to do a lot of blocking around the edge, so I use a more stronger style blocking to drive the people out of the way rather than trick them," says the strong safety, who is fourth on the Indians in tackles (51) with an interception. "Coach Unger says that we are a run-first team, so wide receivers have to block. Stalk blocking is important, too, because we want to keep our tackles at the tackle position and not move bigger guys up to receiver."
He recalls that the New Canaan tournament aided his swagger as a wideout.
"I always thought I had decent hands, but never put them to good use, so with the move to receiver, I had a little more experience, and we did different formations and basic routes," says Tony, who also filled in as starting back when Horton was injured a year ago. "After that New Canaan tournament, I realized I was a deep threat; Nault and I must've had maybe 15 touchdowns on the same post route. It gave Joe confidence and showed Coach Unger we can throw it."
Playing with hometown friends and pride drove Tony to the Indians as a sophomore.
"I grew up with the same kids for several years and wanted to keep playing with them, plus it was a struggle with the long drive to Notre Dame and I wanted to play for my home town," Tony says. "From day one, I was surrounded by friends and realized Guilford was where I wanted to be."
He had his first big performance last season before two more breakout showings this year.
"The East Haven game, when I first became anything on offense, I had a 60-yard catch and a 20-plus yard run for scores, and then the Law game this year was when I probably started to breakaway," says Tony. "I had a bad first quarter with a muffed punt, but from then on, I had two big catches over a defender's head on a fade and a kick return. It set me up to be the big target versus Hillhouse the following week [5 catches, 95 yards, 2 touchdowns]."
Tony says that Guilford built a foundation for further triumphs next season.
"We had big goals this year to have a positive record, win the division, and just see what comes after; the first game versus Wilton was a disappointment, but we've come back since then," says Tony, who thanks parents, John and Jen, assistant coach Dave Esteban, and Nault. "Then we got on a roll and developed. The seniors have been tremendous leaders that pushed us every week to stay focused, and we gained a lot of confidence."