The Day's All-Area Football Player of the Year: New London's Gio Lopez

New London High School senior Gio Lopez was ranked among the best wide receivers in the state, finishing the season with 51 catches for 844 yards and 17 touchdowns and earning Class L all-state honors. Lopez was named The Day's 2017 All-Area Football Player of the Year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London High School senior Gio Lopez was ranked among the best wide receivers in the state, finishing the season with 51 catches for 844 yards and 17 touchdowns and earning Class L all-state honors. Lopez was named The Day's 2017 All-Area Football Player of the Year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

It is a privilege, but certainly not easy, to play football at New London High School. It is the region’s most time-honored program. The most state championships. Demanding coaches. And then there’s this: Program and other school alumni who may be the hardest markers of all.

So maybe that’s why this is the greatest compliment of all to Gio Lopez:

“You know what impressed me most? That he didn’t quit. He hung in there,” said Derek Rock, a 1997 New London graduate who played three sports and still follows the Whalers closely through his job at Sound Community Services.

“This season wasn’t easy. (Lopez) lost his quarterback (Owen George) for a few games. There was losing early. But he just kept playing. That says a lot about him.”

So does this: Lopez, a Class L all-state wide receiver, was named The Day’s 2017 All-Area Football Player of the Year.

Lopez joins an impressive list of past Whalers to have earned the award, including many who have played major college football.

The numbers say plenty. He finished with 51 receptions for 844 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was No. 15 in Connecticut in receiving yards and No. 23 in touchdowns.

And yet they are just numbers. The better story with Lopez: He’s not the same kid he used to be.

“It’s amazing what happens when they become seniors,” said D.J. Exum, one of his basketball coaches at the high school.

Exum said: “Gio came up to us during (preseason basketball) practice and said ‘If you need to start someone else this year, that’s OK. I just want to win.’ It’s amazing what happens when kids experience some success, even in another sport. Their whole outlook changes.”

Lopez, who always had a magnetic personality, didn’t necessarily endear himself to his coaches. There was a scene last football season, when the Whalers made the Class L playoffs. Lopez came off the field and heard chapter and verse — at high octaves — from offensive coordinator Arnie Delio. Not that Delio isn’t prone to a few spleen venters now and then, but it was pretty clear Lopez had it coming.

This year? All he did was play as hard as he could. He even caught a 79-yard touchdown pass in a game against Fairfield Prep with George injured.

“It wasn’t easy sometimes,” Lopez said. “But there’s something about wearing this uniform. You know. The green and gold. Maybe it didn’t go the way we wanted all the time, but it ended great. That NFA game (on Thanksgiving) will go down in history.”

Lopez had a 43-yard catch with 7.4 seconds left that set up New London’s game-winning score against NFA. He finished with seven catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns and intercepted a pass in the end zone as the Whalers rallied from a 22-point deficit in coach Juan Roman’s final game.

“I’m glad we could send him out that way,” Lopez said of his coach. “He’s a great man.”

Roman, who has two sons playing at Yale, spent many postgame chats with reporters touting Lopez for all-state.

“I don’t think too many kids are doing what he is,” Roman said after one game. “But the best thing about him is how he’s changed. He’s become a leader. That’s the best news of all.”

m.dimauro@theday.com

On Thanksgiving Day, New London senior Gio Lopez had seven catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns and intercepted a pass in the end zone as the Whalers rallied for a season-ending win over NFA. New London scored 26 unanswered points in the second half for the victory. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
On Thanksgiving Day, New London senior Gio Lopez had seven catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns and intercepted a pass in the end zone as the Whalers rallied for a season-ending win over NFA. New London scored 26 unanswered points in the second half for the victory. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

The Day's 2017 All-Area Football Team

Player of the Year — Gio Lopez (New London)

Offense

Quarterback — Shea McManaway (NFA)

Running back — Hollis Scott (Fitch), Isaac Tomblin (East Lyme)

Wide receiver — Greg Clark (Montville), Ernest Jean-Pierre (Valley Regional/Old Lyme), Max Mazzella (Waterford)

Lineman — Tom Bartok (East Lyme), Austin Beebe (Fitch), Travis Clement (East Lyme), Brendan Green (NFA), Jon Humphrey (Stonington)

Utility — Dylan Hatajik (East Lyme)

Defense

Lineman — Nick Helbig (Fitch), Tyrone Mack (Montville), Ian Neviaser (Valley Regional/Old Lyme)

Linebacker — Jacob Commander (New London), Malik Gibson (NFA), Pedro Mojica (Fitch), Roan Sullivan (Valley Regional/Old Lyme)

Defensive back — Tony Figueroa (Fitch), Jacob Kruszewski (Valley Regional/Old Lyme), Tyler Nelli (Fitch), Caleb Parker (NFA)

Punter — Owen George (New London)

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