When Ricky Santos was a high school senior, UNH's football coaches were in no hurry to recruit him. "We thought he was a very good quarterback," recalls Sean McDonnell '78, "but we thought there were better." Then they watched him in action on the basketball court. "He had a lot of the intangibles we look for in a quarterback," says McDonnell. "He was not the best player on the team, but he had an ability to lead." A week before the signing date, UNH finally extended the Bellingham, Mass., native his only offer of a football scholarship.
During his redshirt season, however, the coach found Santos lacking not only in strength and speed, but also one of those intangibles—motivation. Why wasn't he sitting with starting quarterback Mike Granieri '05, watching films and studying formations on a daily basis? (Santos says he walked by the film room many times, too shy to enter.)
Last spring, McDonnell gave Santos a talking-to. His stern words had a powerful effect, and Santos spent the whole summer at UNH, lifting weights, running, playing seven-on-seven and watching hours of film. Most importantly, he stuck close to Granieri, learning from the quarterback for whom Santos was the replacement's replacement's replacement.
During pre-season, however, the players standing between fourth-string Santos and the starting lineup dropped like dominoes. One transferred to Mississippi for baseball and the other suffered a severe ankle sprain. The untested redshirt freshman was now in the number two spot. Then came Delaware.
The season's opening game matched the 'Cats against the Division IAA number-one-ranked Blue Hens, last year's defending national champion. Twenty plays into the game, Granieri tore a knee ligament. It all came down to Santos. He completed 10 of 11 passes for 146 yards, and secured the game with a 44-yard touchdown pass to receiver David Ball '07. A week later at Rutgers, in front of 31,000 New Jersey fans, Santos proved that his Delaware performance was no fluke, throwing for 385 yards and five touchdowns, a UNH record. In a 35-24 game, UNH had its first victory over a IA team.
The Wildcats proceeded to steamroll through the regular season, ending 9-2, and received their first playoff invitation in 10 years. Against Georgia Southern, a football powerhouse that had never lost a first-round playoff game, they won again, 27-23. Finally, in the quarterfinals, seventh-ranked Montana stopped UNH's winning streak. Santos was named Rookie of the Year by both ECAC and the Atlantic 10. McDonnell was named Region I Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association; Ball and lineman George Peterson '05 were named to the Sports Network's IAA All-America Team.
For the fans, it was a season in paradise. "You can feel it in the stands," says Carroll Winch '63, a season ticket holder since 1968. "It's electric."Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents