The Sacopee Valley High football program has won just seven varsity games in its history.

By next fall, however, the Hawks should be able to claim they helped produce two NCAA Division I players – one of whom played the past two years in the Pac-12 Conference.

If you’ve never heard of brothers Clay and Kyle Cordasco, don’t worry. Few in Maine outside of the small towns of Hiram and Cornish have.

The Cordascos’ improbable path to college football sounds like a folk story, replete with anonymity, youthful missteps and cross-country journeys. Through determination and hard work, they have found success on the football field.

Clay Cordasco, left, and his younger brother, Kyle, both played football at Sacopee Valley High. Neither were recruited while in high school, but Clay, 23, went on to start as an offensive lineman at Oregon State, and Kyle, 20, has received a scholarship offer from Division I Morehead State. Craig Cordasco photo

Clay, 23, a 6-foot-5, 314-pound offensive lineman, never won a game in three seasons at Sacopee Valley. Last fall, as a college senior, he started every game for Oregon State, usually at right guard. On Sunday, he’ll play in the Hula Bowl, a college all-star game in Hawaii showcasing pro prospects.

Not bad for a guy who spent his first year after high school seal-coating driveways.

“He’s like Roy Hobbs. He came out of nowhere,” said his father, Craig Cordasco.

Kyle, 20, a 6-3, 260-pound defensive end/outside linebacker, followed Clay’s path from Cornish, to junior college football in Los Angeles. After a strong second season, he has received a Division I offer from Morehead State, a Football Championship Subdivision program, but is intent on playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level like his big brother.

“Kyle can play at the Division I level,” said Lester Towns, the head coach at Los Angeles Valley College and a former NFL player and Alabama assistant coach. “As far as what Division I school, that’s up to who’s willing to give him an opportunity. He can play multiple positions. He’s strong. He’s a good leader and he’ll go as hard as he can every single play until we take him out.”

UNDER THE RADAR

When the Cordasco family moved to Maine from New Jersey in 2008, Clay was entering the sixth grade, Kyle going into second grade. The family came to Cornish, population 1,400, to realize the dream of living in Maine and renovating a 200-year-old Colonial home. Football was not a central part of the equation. Which was a good thing because Cornish kids go to Sacopee Valley.

Sacopee’s football history is undistinguished. From 2009-13, the first five years of varsity competition, the Hawks went 0-40. Clay played on three winless teams (2010-12) before spending his senior year across the border at Kennett High in Conway, New Hampshire.

Kyle might have had it even worse. During his first three seasons, the Hawks were playing a junior varsity schedule because the school lacked enough players to compete at the varsity level. As a 6-foot, 220-pound senior he was part of a varsity team that won three games in Class E, the developmental league created by the Maine Principals’ Association to help struggling football programs.

Clay Cordasco was seal-coating driveways for a year after high school because he lacked the grades to get into college. He improved his academic standing with two years at junior colleges in southern California before landing a football scholarship to Oregon State. Courtesy of Oregon State

Little wonder the Cordasco brothers went unnoticed.

Jack Cosgrove said he’d never heard of Clay Cordasco. Cosgrove, now the head football coach at Colby College, was the University of Maine’s head coach from 1993-2015. Alex Rotsko, a former college coach who leads Marshwood High’s title-winning program, had a similar response. “My first reaction is that I can’t believe I didn’t know that. Wow. Is that true?” Rotsko said.

Northern New England as a whole is an afterthought for many college football recruiters. Oregon State offensive line coach Jim Michalczik, who was also surprised to learn Clay Cordasco’s backstory, has been a college coach since 1990 (except for a two-year stint with the Oakland Raiders).

“I’ve been to about 45 states recruiting. Maine is one I’ve never been to,” Michalczik said.

Small high schools with no history of success aren’t even going to get a whiff. Still, especially in Clay’s case, he was 6-foot-5, 300 pounds as a high school senior. After graduating from Kennett, he played in the CHaD East-West High School All-Star game, New Hampshire’s version of the Lobster Bowl. Surely some college coach saw him, or heard about him?

Clay said after his all-star appearance he was approached by coaches from Division II St. Anselm College, where the all-star game was played. He wasn’t close to meeting the private school’s rigorous academic standards. Then he checked on Husson University in Bangor “and I couldn’t get in there.”

“We had terrible grades,” Kyle said. “Clay thought he would be seal-coating driveways and I thought I’d be working at Call’s Shop’n Save (in Cornish). But I knew there was more.”

ONE-WAY TICKET TO L.A.

Clay says he didn’t even know junior college was an option. He spent a year working until his uncle, Kevin Cordasco of Calabasas, California, called Craig Cordasco. The message was simple: Clay’s wasting his talent, get him to California, and he can play football and improve his grades at a junior college.

“I’m a kid from Maine and I’d never been on a plane before,” Clay said. “My dad said, ‘You’re going to L.A. in June.’ Come June, I was on a one-way flight to L.A.”

The culture shock was “horrifying,” at first. He had stayed in shape so the physical transition to playing football wasn’t as hard as the mental adjustment.

“I did more maturing in those two years of junior college than I did in my whole life,” Clay said. “Not just the football aspect but the school aspect, too. A lot of JC prospects, the problem they have is they don’t pass any of their classes.”

During his second junior college year, after transferring from Pierce Community College to Los Angeles Valley College, recruiters started to notice the big kid who moved well and played with a fiery edge. At first, FCS schools such as Idaho and Eastern Kentucky inquired. Clay says the University of Maine called but “it was two years too late.”

The first big scholarship offer came from Texas Tech, with Syracuse, UMass and Oregon State to follow. He visited Texas Tech but Lubbock, Texas, didn’t feel right. When he arrived at Oregon State he was greeted by players with fishing poles in their hands.

“It was like being back in Maine,” he said. “When I landed in Corvallis, I could see myself playing there the next three years.”

After redshirting in 2017, Clay Cordasco played in nine games as a junior in 2018, bouncing along the offensive line and taking some snaps as a defensive tackle in goal-line situations. As a senior he earned a starting job. His first game was at Ohio State. He’s played at the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Rose Bowl. He’s played in nationally televised games and against college football royalty like Oregon and Southern Cal.

“He’s played against some real good players,” Michalczik said. “The number one thing is he brings a competitive attitude. He’s a little bit of a throwback, just with the physicality he brings to the game, the aggressiveness, the attitude.”

Clay Cordasco (56) started all 12 games as a right guard for the 2019 Oregon State football team. On Sunday, he’ll play in the Hula Bowl, a college all-star game in Hawaii showcasing pro prospects. Scobel Wiggins photo

“Here’s a kid from Cornish that had 14 kids on his (Sacopee) team and he’s running out of the tunnel at the Coliseum to play USC,” Craig Cordasco said. “How many kids from Maine can say that?”

FEW MAINERS IN FBS

Very, very few, especially when considering Mainers who have been part of a team that plays in a Power Five conference (Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, SEC and Big 12). The term Power Five has been used since at least 2006 to distinguish the high-major programs that vie for national championships and appear regularly on nationally televised games from the other five Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.

Quinton Porter of Portland High played at Boston College from 2001-05. The Eagles were a Big East team for Porter’s first four years in Chestnut Hill, joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005. BC went to and won five bowl games while Porter was on the team. Rudy DiPietro, an offensive lineman from Westbrook, was on BC teams from 1999-2002, earning one varsity letter.

Peter Gwilym of Freeport (Cheverus) was a three-year walk-on player at Ohio State from 2012-2014. The 2010 Fitzpatrick Trophy winner only appeared in two games both as a junior, but was in uniform as a senior when the Buckeyes beat Oregon in the first College Football Playoff national championship game following the 2014 season.

Playing at any FBS program is rare. Zordan Holman of Portland (Cheverus) played on special teams for the University of Connecticut, appearing in 31 games from 2015-2018 when UConn was a member of the American Athletic Conference. Going back farther, Nate Dingle, who played at Wells, was a standout at the University of Cincinnati from 1990-93 and spent three seasons in the NFL (1995-97).

Even making a significant impact at FCS programs like the University of Maine and University of New Hampshire is unusual for Maine high school products. This past season, 17 in-state players were on the University of Maine roster. Of those, wide receiver Andre Miller of Old Town and running back Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth (Cheverus) were key contributors on offense. Owen Elliott of Saco (Thornton Academy) has made 13 tackles over the past two seasons as a special-teams player. Gunnar Docos of Harrison (Oxford Hills) was a starting offensive lineman in 2018.

UNH had four players from Maine on its 2019 roster. Combined they have appeared in one game.

Kyle Cordasco (50) played varsity football only as a senior at Sacopee Valley High – because the Hawks lacked enough players to compete at the varsity level during his first three years in high school. Photo courtesy of Craig Cordasco

Despite the odds being stacked against him, Kyle Cordasco’s coaches at Sacopee Valley believed he could keep playing.

“I said to him, you have the potential to play at the college level,” said Jim Walsh, the school’s assistant principal who was the varsity coach in 2017. But, like his brother, it was apparent he needed seasoning as a player and a student. For most student-athletes in Maine and northern New England, that would mean spending a year (and likely a good bit of money) at a prep school.

‘OUT OF NOWHERE’

The Cordascos used a different blueprint, not that it was easy to follow.

California junior colleges do not offer athletic aid, so they needed the family connection to help defray costs and provide housing. Hard work in the classroom was required. Kyle Cordasco, who has grown three inches and added over 40 pounds of muscle since high school, said he’s carrying a 3.2 GPA and will graduate with a two-year degree in May. He expects his recruitment to pick up following the national high school signing period, which runs from Feb. 5 to April 1.

“Trust me, if I can do this from my life, from where I am, I think other kids can do it,” Kyle said. “I do this because I want to show other kids they can make it out of Maine. If you go to a juco and you stick it out, you will get an offer and it’s just how much work do you want to put in.”

According to a 2019 Sports Illustrated article, roughly 800 junior college players join FBS programs each year, with about 150 signing annually with one of the 64 Power Five schools.

This winter, Clay is working out with personal trainer Chad Ikei in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the Cordasco family has relocated. Ikei annually trains a small group of NFL hopefuls to prepare them for a shot at the NFL.

“I’ve been told there’s a possibility that I’m a late-round guy, or a free agent. I’ve been told I’ll at least be able to make a couple of mini-camps,” said Clay Cordasco, who will participate in Oregon State’s pro day in March.

“He’s got the physical gifts you have to have,” said Michalczik.

Sunday’s Hula Bowl will be another opportunity to impress NFL scouts, another experience teenager Clay Cordasco would have never dared predict.

“If you had told me six years ago I’d be playing in the Pac-12 and right now training for the NFL draft, I’d probably smack you in the face,” Clay said. “I mean, that’s so out of nowhere for a kid from Maine, especially from Cornish, to say that.”


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