BEACON FALLS — Back in the summer of 2002, Woodland Regional High School offensive coordinator Tim Phipps met Mike Kingsley for the first time and during their conversation got a glimpse of then 6-year-old Tanner Kingsley running around the field.
“Mike told me that all three of his boys play football, and to please stay around for Tanner,” recalled Phipps. “Mike said, ‘This one (Tanner), he’s special.’”
More than a decade later, the elder Kingsley’s words turned out quite true.
Last season, the left-handed quarterback set a state record with a single-game best 615 yards against Seymour on Thanksgiving eve.
After leading the Hawks to the CIAC Class S semifinals, Kingsley finished with a single-season state record of 51 touchdowns, just eight interceptions, and passed for 3,227 yards.
Twice, he threw for a mind-boggling eight touchdowns in a game, against Naugatuck and Seymour.
A three-year starter and senior, Kingsley is setting his sights on another memorable season when the Hawks open preseason camp on Aug. 19.
Kingsley is arguably the best three-sport athlete in the Naugatuck Valley League.
On the diamond, he is a sure-fielded first baseman who earned All-NVL honors as a pitcher.
On the football field, he earned utility player honors on the 2012 All-NVL Offensive team and followed that up in the winter, scoring a school-record 42 points against Wolcott, culminating with All-Brass Division postseason honors. He is 150 points shy of 1,000 career points. As a sophomore, he was the NVL’s third leading scorer.
“The biggest thing that Tanner brings to the court is a warrior mentality,” said Woodland basketball coach Tom Hunt. “He’ll do whatever it takes and carry his team on his back, if necessary. He’s so unselfish. With him, it’s not about the glory, it’s about the victory.”
Kingsley said he learned that trait from his older brothers, Shane and Cody, both former Woodland football and baseball players.
Cody, a former QB, is the wide receivers coach for the Hawks. Shane was a receiver and defensive back on two NVL and state championship teams in 2004 and 2005 with the Hawks, and is an assistant baseball coach at Woodland.
Mike Kingsley is the head baseball coach at Woodland.
“Shane and Cody set the example for me,” said Tanner Kingsley. “They were playmakers and I tried to follow them under the lights. They taught me how to handle pressure and how to stay calm and to rely on my experience.”
Pressure situations just don’t faze him.
“When I was younger, I played in three World Series at the Clemente (Georgia), Mays (Puerto Rico) and Koufax (Michigan) levels,” he said. “I’ve played in so many big games. It’s good to have butterflies, but once the first pitch is thrown, first snap or whistle blows, I don’t think about anything else except to play hard.”
An interested observer, Watertown football coach Mike Veronneau, also an ex-football, basketball and baseball player in high school at Crosby, marvels at Kingsley’s performance season to season.
“It’s not just his arm that is great,” said Veronneau. “To his credit, his mind makes him special. Playing quarterback is such a mental position. The toughest thing about playing every season is the physicality and the time commitment. Being an athlete who loves to compete at the highest level gets him through the tough days. We haven’t played against him the two seasons, but I’ve seen him enough times on film and he makes everyone around him better.”
Phipps agrees. As a former football quarterback, who also played basketball and baseball at Ansonia High from 1989 to 1992, Phipps knows the challenges that confront a versatile athlete, and especially the pressures that goes with being a quarterback.
“Tanner has such a charisma about him and he cares about how his teammates feel and they want to excel with him and for him,” said Phipps. “When Anthony Scirpo got the state record for TD receptions last year (25, against North Branford in playoff semifinals), he was genuinely happy for him.”
Every so often, when Kingsley would have an off day, he took the blame squarely on his shoulders, a mark of a strong leader. Phipps admitted that he wouldn’t hold back from giving him direct criticism during postgame film sessions after a tough game and loss.
“You could see that Tanner was visibly upset and he’d have that expression with his locked jaw up, but I give him credit for coming into the coaches office afterward and be willing to ask what he could do to improve, so he doesn’t have to face another session like that again,” Phipps said.
“Quarterbacks have to shoulder a lot of the burden,” Phipps continued. “Tanner understands this better than anyone else. He has that poise. I believe that I could coach most people skills to be a quarterback, but he has that QB mindset that sees the bigger picture. You can’t teach that. He’s always able to balance out the ship. If things go bad, he’s nice and calm and gets his teammates to stay focused and remain confident.”
Kingsley noted that he never played another down of football other than at quarterback. He has never played defense at any level and Phipps and Woodland head coach Tim Shea don’t plan on using him this season on defense, either, in order to ensure that Kingsley remains fresh and upright.
The 6-foot-1, 160-pound Kingsley understands his coaches’ reasoning.
When he first entered high school, he thought baseball was his best sport, but football has taken the top spot now, so much that he’ll pursue football in college over the other two sports.
“Right now, football is one of my better options,” said Kingsley. “It will be tough giving up the other sports, something that I’ve done my whole life. I’m certain that I’m going to miss it. But there’s nothing comparable to walking up the hill on Friday nights and winning football games with my teammates. I want to continue that feeling in college.”
Until then, Kingsley has his sights set on one last memorable fall, winter and spring of 2014.
Despite playing for the Connecticut Surge 17-and-under AAU baseball team this summer, he hasn’t missed a weightlifting session or a weekly 7-on-7 passing league workout in Milford in preparation for the fall.
“From my sophomore to junior year, I took a big step forward and felt good that my coaches believed in me to run the spread offense, like some of the past Woodland quarterbacks,” Kingsley said. “I knew that I needed to work on my footwork and get my arm stronger. Repetition and good mechanics get your arm stronger. A lot of that comes from your legs. Good footwork and a good base gets the ball out of your hand faster. I feel I now have pinpoint accuracy.”
Kingsley said Phipps’ patience and communication with him during film sessions has been invaluable.
“I’m learning to read defenses better,” Kingsley said. “When I think back to some of my games last year, I just laugh. I wouldn’t be in this position without my teammates and coaches. Everyone has had a hand in my success. I’m so thankful to have them on my side.”
Especially his two older brothers, who showed him the way.