“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,’’ the fifth-year head coach said with a laugh. “As it turned out, we just needed to get rid of those jitters."
Displaying the maturity, resolve and adaptation skills that were missing last season, the Hawks shook off the mistake and followed their game plan to near perfection, smashing South Plainfield, 35-14, in their season and home opener.
“We responded,’’ O’Donnell said. “I was pleased with the plan our coaches put together, and we stuck with it."
Manchester will need to leave the first-game euphoria behind, however. The Hawks begin preparation for Shore Conference Class B South rival Barnegat Monday. Manchester travels to Barnegat Friday night, 7 p.m.
Barnegat will be a hungry football team, too. The Bengals blew a 16-6 lead in the game’s final 10 minutes and dropped a 21-16 decision to Rumson-Fair Haven last Friday night.
"It will be their home opener, they are a team on the rise with talent," O’Donnell said of Barnegat.
“If we have any thoughts of being a contender in the conference, this is a game we need to win," the coach said. “The season is a marathon but each game is a sprint. Our first sprint is over. Now it’s time to focus on the second sprint."
Last year against Barnegat, a potential game-winning drive ended on the Bengals’ three-yard line.
“We had the lead at halftime,’’ O’Donnell said. “It was a game we could have won."
The Hawks have much to build on. They were explosive and balanced on offense and played solid, fundamentally sound defense in the second half against South Plainfield. But what pleased O’Donnell most was special teams performance.
“We went 5-for-5 on point after kicks and we had eight all of last year," O’Donnell said. “We played well in the punt game."
Senior Tom Sokol converted all five PAT kicks. Sokol played as a sophomore but skipped football as a junior. Sokol also contributed to the offense as a tight end with both his blocking and pass-catching ability.
“I was very happy for Tom,’’ O’Donnell said. “He did an excellent job."
Offensively, tailback Joe Johnson was in midseason form. He carried 27 times for 127 yards, caught three passes for 71 yards and scored five touchdowns.
“It all started with Joey," O’Donnell said.
Quarterback Tim Rogers was also sharp and ran the offense efficiently.
“What I was pleased with was the way Tim ran the offense," O’Donnell said. “He make some good checks at the line and he spread the ball around."
Rogers completed passes to five different receivers.
“After we gave up the early touchdown, we came back with a seven-minute drive," O’Donnell said. “We answered right back and then when we got the ball back the next time, we scored again. That was important."
On defense, O’Donnell called the game one of “two halves."
“In the second half, we did a good job of running to the football," O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell also said the team met its pre-game goal of limiting South Plainfield to a 40 percent success rate on third down. Last year, the Hawks struggled on third down with opponents converting 60 percent of the time.
“South Plainfield was 4-for-10 so that was acceptable," O’Donnell said.
RoeMello Muldrow, a junior linebacker, had a big game, recording four tackles and one tackle for loss.
“He just seemed like he was in the right spot much of the time," O’Donnell said.
A.J. Thomas had a big game with four tackles from his safety position, all while calling defensive signals.
“He was around the ball and did a good job of tackling all night," O’Donnell said.
While there was much to be excited about, O’Donnell knows it was just one game.
“Our kids have to understand that what Barnegat did last year was not a fluke," he said. “They play good football. They will be ready. Hopefully, our kids understand that."