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Brockton’s Thellen and Hilliard tackle leading roles for UMass football program

Darren Thellen (left) and Greg Hilliard, both graduates of Brockton High School, are expected to give UMass-Amherst some energy in its first season of Division 1 football. Darren Thellen (left) and Greg Hilliard, both graduates of Brockton High School, are expected to give UMass-Amherst some energy in its first season of Division 1 football. (Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)
By John R. Johnson
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2012
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Minutemen’s recipe: good home cooking

Charley Molnar acknowledges that his University of Massachusetts Amherst football program will need to rely heavily on homegrown talent this season as the Minutemen make the jump up to Division 1.

“The in-state kids will need to be the heart and soul of this program,” said the first-year coach, who in December was hired off of Brian Kelley’s staff at Notre Dame to direct UMass’s transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Mid-American Conference.

“We really want to make our mark in Massachusetts.”

The Minutemen will be leaning on a pair of Brockton High graduates, Greg Hilliard and Darren Thellen, each projected to start when the Minutemen kick off their season Aug. 30 at Connecticut.

Hilliard, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound redshirt sophomore who prepped a semester at Suffield Academy, will be an anchor at linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Thellen, who is expected to be a game captain against UConn, blossomed as a leader last season at free safety.

“Darren really came on strong last year and is unquestionably one of the leaders of our defense,” said Molnar.

Thellen recorded five interceptions last season, including an 85-yard return for a touchdown in a 42-26 victory over Central Connecticut. His 172 return yards, off interceptions, set a single-season program mark. He is 67 return yards shy of a new career record.

In 11 starts last year, Thellen registered 42 solo tackles and 68 total stops, third-highest on the squad. He also broke up three passes.

“He comes and works hard, plays enthusiastically, and has a great nose for the football,” added Molnar. “He’s not only good against the pass but pretty darn good against the run, and he’s not afraid to come up and hit a ball carrier.”

A 2008 graduate of Brockton High, where he won a Division 1 Super Bowl in 2006, Thellen considered attending Northeastern (and joining older brother Nate) and UMass.

His decision was a fortuitous one. While NU ended its football program after the 2009 season, Thellen now gets to play his final season for a UMass squad moving up to the Division 1 level. The Minutemen will play all of their home games at Gillette Stadium, a 20-minute drive from where Thellen grew up, in Brockton.

“I had no idea they would pursue Division 1,” Thellen said. “There were always rumors about it, but I never thought it would happen during my time here. That it happened while I’m still here is unbelievable. To be a member of the first class playing at the Division 1 level here is very exciting.”

Thellen and fellow senior Perry McIntyre will need to take lead roles defensively as the Minutemen tackle Division 1 foes on a weekly basis.

“We’re looking good so far and we have a lot of returning starters on defense and a lot of younger guys coming up who are working hard,” said Thellen.

“Perry and I are the oldest and most experienced guys on defense, so we need to lead by example. The younger guys look up to us and we need to set the right example and play hard every day.”

Hilliard, who saw action on special teams in 10 games last season as a freshman, making eight tackles, is one of those young players.

“He’s a long and rangy kid who has good speed and good instincts for the ball,” said Molnar. “He’s fast enough to cover receivers but also can come up and he does a nice job against the run. He’s a multi-dimensional player and he’s young, so we’ll have several years with him.”

Hilliard is recovering from a mild concussion suffered during practice, but expects to be medically cleared in plenty of time to start in the Minutemen’s season opener.

“I need to make plays, no question about it,” said Hilliard.

“I’m ready, and plan on being a solid contributor. I think the defense will definitely be the anchor for this team. We’re looking real good.”

Ryan Collins, a junior defensive back from Walpole High School, and Quincy’s Julian Colarusso, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior wide receiver who played at Catholic Memorial, are both expected to see significant time on special teams.

Making a splash

Are there future Olympians among the Bluefish Swim Club? The group recently had a strong showing at the New England Swimming Long Course 14 & Under Championship meet.

Lilly Vivado, 14, of Marshfield, finished second in the 13-14 age group with 162 points after capturing the 200-meter freestyle (2:09.50), 400-meter freestyle (4:27.35), 800-meter freestyle (9:07.19), 1,500-meter freestyle (17:15.11), and the 200-meter backstroke (2:22.51).

Walpole’s Andrew Gubanov, 12, finished fourth in the 11-12 division. He won the 50-meter fly (30.59) and earned second place in the 50-meter freestyle (28.08), 100-meter freestyle (1:00.36), 200-meter freestyle (2:16.71), 100-meter fly (1:10.18), 200-meter individual medley (2:34.18), and 400-meter IM (5:36.79).

Bridgewater’s Timothy Souza, 14, won the 100-meter breaststroke (1:14.07) in the 13-14 age division and earned second place in the 400-meter freestyle (4:22.76).

Abigail Martin, 12, of Norton also competed in the 11-12 age bracket, placing third in the 50-meter fly (31.73) and 400-meter freestyle (4:52.25).

John R. Johnson can be reached at jjohnson49@comcast.net.

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