Nathan Kapongo, a 2019 Portland High graduate, celebrates on the University of New Hampshire sidelines during the Wildcats’ Nov. 12 win against Rhode Island. Kapongo has become a key defensive lineman for UNH. Rick Wilson photo

A season ago, former Portland High standout Nathan Kapongo barely got on the field for one of the worst University of New Hampshire football teams in the last 50 years.

Things have changed. For the better.

Kapongo, 22, is now a significant contributor as a 6-foot-4, 275-pound sophomore defensive tackle, and the Wildcats are back in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Kapongo has played in every game and had at least an assisted tackle in each. UNH (9-3), picked to finish ninth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll, shared the CAA title with William & Mary. The Wildcats earned an at-large berth to the FCS playoffs, and last Saturday slowed Fordham’s top-rated passing attack enough to win a first-round game, 52-42.

“I’m very excited and very grateful to be a part of this team with the awesome coaches we have,” said Kapongo, who graduated from Portland High in 2019 and now lives in Westbrook. “That’s a blessing for me to participate and play and contribute somehow to be part of the team.”

On Saturday, No. 15 UNH travels to Worcester, Massachusetts, to play unbeaten Holy Cross (11-0). The No. 7 Crusaders were awarded the eighth seed in the tournament and received a first-round bye. Unlike Fordham, Holy Cross runs the ball nearly twice as often as it passes.


“We’ve got to buckle up and be ready to play,” Kapongo said.

Three other Maine high school football products are on the UNH roster. Freshman long snapper Kevin Gallic, a Lewiston graduate, has appeared in every game. Freshman Sam Rumelhart of Scarborough and redshirt freshman Kristian Larouche of Fairfield (Lawrence) have not played this season.

As a high school player, Kapongo dominated with size and athletic ability, but he was a football novice. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kapongo and many members of his large family immigrated to the United States in 2015 and moved to Portland in 2016. The first time he put on a football helmet and shoulder pads, Kapongo was a high school sophomore.

A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nathan Kapongo immigrated to the United States in 2015 and moved to Portland in 2016. The first time he put on a football helmet and shoulder pads, Kapongo was a high school sophomore. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Kapongo redshirted as a UNH freshman in 2019, a common practice for college football players to help them mature physically and adapt to the rigors of NCAA Division I athletics.

When Nyeem Wartman-White, a former Penn State linebacker, joined the UNH coaching staff in March 2020, he quickly realized Kapongo was still well behind most of his teammates when it came to football knowledge.

“He was playing catch-up,” Wartman-White said.


When the 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kapongo gained a needed year of development without the cost of a year of athletic eligibility.

“He used that year in two parts,” Wartman-White said. “One part was just discovery of who he wanted to be and what direction he wanted to go in. And the second part was to enhance his football IQ.”

Kapongo had a long list of things to improve, Wartman-White said, including football basics like pad level and getting off the line with authority.

In the fall of 2021, Kapongo was still working to get on the field. He played in two of the final three games and did not make a tackle.

Meanwhile, UNH lost its final eight games and finished 3-8 in Sean McDonnell’s 23rd and final season as head coach. It was only the second time the Wildcats won fewer than four games in a full season since 1972, the year McDonnell’s mentor and College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Bill Bowes, took over the program.

McDonnell, who led UNH to 14 straight FCS playoff appearances from 2004-17, resigned shortly after the 2021 season ended. Six days later, assistant coach and former Wildcat quarterback Ricky Santos was hired as McDonnell’s successor.


Kapongo’s improved play is one of many reasons UNH has improved.

“It’s about the whole team playing pretty good, but I believe I have gotten better,” Kapongo said.

He is playing approximately half of the defensive snaps as the first defensive tackle off the bench. Kapongo has 11 solo tackles, 20 assists, and four tackles for loss, including two sacks, with four quarterback hurries. Only senior captain Niko Kvietkus (38 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, five hurries) has better statistics among UNH defensive tackles.

Nathan Kapongo, a 2019 Portland High graduate, has become a key defensive linemen for New Hampshire. Rich Gagnon photo

New Hampshire uses analytics developed by Pro Football Focus to assist in evaluating player performance.

“According to PFF, Nate is our second-best player on defense. That’s our whole defense,” Wartman-White said. “He has length, great push, his speed – he has elite speed for a defensive tackle. He can basically chase down any quarterback in our league.”

Wartman-White said Kapongo’s teammates recognize his potential, and “when he makes a play, it gets everyone excited.”

Kapongo is on schedule to graduate with a degree in communications next spring and still has two years of athletic eligibility.

“We have a huge game coming up right now and I plan to worry about the rest of my future later,” Kapongo said. “But my plan is definitely to play here again, whether that’s one more year or two more years, whatever that is.”

UPDATE: This story was updated at 1:25 p.m. on Dec. 2 to include Kevin Gallic of Lewiston High as a player from Maine who is on the University of New Hampshire football roster.

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