CAPE ELIZABETH — In three seasons of playing high school golf, Nate Ingalls said he never had a single spectator watch him play.

Now, on Friday nights, there are hundreds watching Ingalls and his teammates play football for Cape Elizabeth.

“I’m not saying I’m selfish, but I love having my friends, my family and the community watch you play,” said Ingalls, a senior who joined the football team this fall. “It makes you want to play better. I’m having the most fun playing football.”

Ingalls isn’t alone in his exuberance for his new sport. Three of his teammates – two of them seniors and one a junior – also are playing high school football for the first time.

Ingalls, a wide receiver/defensive back; Jack O’Rourke, a quarterback/defensive back; and Matt Graham, a fullback/linebacker, have returned to a sport they left in the lower grades. Nat Spicer, a junior wide receiver/defensive back, had never played football before.

The new players have amped up the team’s speed and talent. Cape Elizabeth (3-0) is one of three unbeaten teams in Class C South, winners of two blowouts and an overtime thriller.

“They’ve had a huge impact so far,” said Coach Aaron Filieo. “We had some speed coming in, but now we have more speed in more positions.”

The centerpiece is O’Rourke, who was a starting guard on last winter’s Class B state championship basketball team. He last played football in the fifth grade, where he was also a quarterback. In his first varsity game, he threw five touchdown passes. In his second game, he threw two more TD passes and returned a kickoff 72 yards for a touchdown. In the last game, a 35-34 overtime win at Spruce Mountain, O’Rourke passed for three TDs and ran for one. He has thrown for 531 yards and only one interception.

“After I stopped playing football in the fifth grade, I never really thought I would play again,” he said.

O’Rourke said he’s always enjoyed football, but he hadn’t tried out for the high school team because of the risk of injury that could shorten or wipe out his basketball season. That was his rationale before, but not now.

“We’ve had a lot of success in basketball. I felt it was worth the risk,” he said.

Filieo, who said he tries to recruit athletic players who aren’t committed to soccer, noticed something else about O’Rourke – he went to all the home games. Also, O’Rourke and his buddies liked to play pickup football games.

“It’s not one-and-done when I ask them about playing. I check back every year,” said Filieo, a social studies teacher at Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

“The biggest reason I hear from kids for not playing is ‘I’m not big enough.’ This is Maine Class C football. Some of the best players in the league are between 150 and 170 pounds. This is not Division I football in Pennsylvania or Alabama. You don’t have to be big and strong. You have to be tough. Speed goes a long way. What teenager wouldn’t want to play before a home crowd on the turf. It’s exhilarating.”

The coach uses the seven-on-seven summer passing league to convince players on the fence to play.

“Come out and try it, I tell them,” said Filieo.

Peer pressure – and the realization that this would be the last chance for the three seniors to play football – were key factors. After O’Rourke decided to play, Ingalls and Graham followed. Spicer was persuaded by other players.

Justin Guerrette, a tight end and defensive end, is a good target for O’Rourke and was a convincing voice for him to play.

“Justin wanted me to play,” said O’Rourke. “Then I talked to the coach and he wanted me to play, and I said yes.”

O’Rourke, said he prefers passing to running, but he’s good at both. In the Capers’ wing-T, O’Rourke often rolls out with the option of passing or running. He’s also good at scrambling to buy more time to find an open receiver. He has gained 63 yards on 13 carries.

“We have a lot of weapons. The guys around me have been making plays,” he said.

One of those weapons is Ben Ekedahl, who has 13 catches for 252 yards and two touchdowns. He opened the Poland game with a 78-yard touchdown return.

Nearing the halfway point of the regular season, Filieo admits O’Rourke is better than he expected.

“I knew Jack was fast, but I didn’t realize he was this elusive. He keeps his eyes downfield and has an uncanny ability to make tacklers miss.”

O’Rourke began studying the playbook early in the summer. Another adjustment, he said, was learning to play in pads.

Ingalls played football through eighth grade. He was a quarterback, but quit football because he was taking some heavy hits. He’s added some weight and feels more confident. Plus, several people he played against in baseball and basketball are playing football, and knew he could compete with them.

“I was looking for a different team experience,” said Ingalls, who would have vied for the No. 1 spot on the golf team had he continued to play. He is also one of the top baseball pitchers in the Western Maine Conference.

“Golf is very singular. You do it for yourself. Now, I love being in the locker room and going out for the game.”

Against Spruce Mountain, Ingalls scored on a 61-yard reception.

“I told Nate he could play golf the rest of his life,” said Filieo.

Spicer is a former soccer player and a physical presence, the kind of player Filieo likes. He’s another receiving option for O’Rourke. Graham, meanwhile, adds to the speed in the backfield and is a good run stopper at linebacker.

“I didn’t really like soccer,” said Spicer. “A lot of people wanted me to play football. The team atmosphere in pretty intense. All the games are exciting and fun.”

Like O’Rourke, Graham last played football in fifth grade and didn’t play a fall sport in high school before this year. He said picking up for lost time was made easier by summer practices with the coaches.

“They really concentrated on fundamentals. There were five coaches who worked with each of us.

“The games have been fun and the team is really committed.”

O’Rourke’s new teammates have been impressed with his play.

“I’ve been amazed,” said Ingalls. “I played quarterback and I know how tough it really is. We have a complicated offense. Jack has done a fabulous job.”

“Jack is probably the best athlete in the school,” said Guerrette. “I knew he was going to help us.”

Added Graham: “Jack is a great player to watch. He’s gotten the students excited about football. We had 200 students at the Poland game. People have really come out and supported us.”

The four newcomers got their first taste of action in Cape’s opening scrimmage against Gardiner.

“I couldn’t peel the smiles off their faces,” said Filieo. “They had a blast.”