A quick look at a perennial postseason contender on the first day of fall practice
The high school football season is officially here with practice starting Monday. The first stop for me was Bellarmine Prep, a state semifinalist last season.
Most of what I caught from the morning practice was work on the offensive side of the ball. Bellarmine is yet to name the replacement for last year’s quarterback who graduated, Lou Millie.
The Lions will also try to find receivers who can pick up the workload carried by 2014 graduates Drew Griffin and Garrett McKay. Offensive coordinator Brian Jensen isn’t sure that “replacement” is the right word, though.
“There’s guys that you just can’t replace,” Jensen said. “You just can’t. So you need to be careful that you don’t pigeonhole some of the kids now to be those guys. They need to be their own guys.”
On the other side of the ball, the same sentiment was shared by defensive coordinator Dan Shaw. He said a lot of his leaders will emerge through the course of practice.
“That’s kind of the cool thing about new guys coming in,” Shaw said. “They bring new gifts. They might not be as tall or fast as Lou or as smart as Garrett, but they bring different gifts too. So they may be able attain the same result with a different skillset.”
Shaw has been the defensive coordinator for Bellarmine since 2009, Jensen has run the offense since 2010. Both coaches have been coordinators for some Lions teams that have gone deep in the state tournament – two trips to the semifinals and one to the state finals in 2012 (a loss to Skyline).
Last season, Bellarmine had two overtime games in the state tournament, beating Newport in the round-of-32 and Bothell in the quarterfinals – both were in come-from-behind fashion.
All of the Bellarmine personnel I spoke with made it clear that this is a new, different team from the 2013 Lions. But that doesn’t mean those experiences won’t help this year’s team.
“I think it impacts practice more than anything,” Shaw said of last year’s playoff comebacks, “because it lets you know that in a 100-play game, that it literally comes down to the last three seconds. One play. It focuses you extremely on attention to detail.”
Senior captain Matt Philichi kicked game-winning field goals in both of those overtime playoff games last year and surely won’t forget the run Bellarmine went on.
“Everyone on that sideline believed that we could come back and we did it,” he said. “And it was incredible. That was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Like Philichi, now-senior running back Jamal Ervin put points on the board for Bellarmine down the stretch in the playoffs, scoring in the last two minutes of the Newport game. Looking back at that win, Ervin remembers that his body – well, his stomach — didn’t want him to win.
“I was throwing up the whole time on the sideline,” he said.
Despite being plagued with a stomach bug, Ervin plugged along with the help of his teammates and coaches.
“One of the coaches was telling me ‘we need you Jamal, we need you Jamal’,” he said. “And I always kept that in my mind and even when I felt like I was getting tired, something clicked in my head saying, ‘Don’t give up. Keep going’.”
But again, that was last year.
The players I spoke with suggested that perhaps as a result of Bellarmine’s run last season, the offseason approach – specifically in the weight room – wasn’t as aggressive as it’s been in the past.
“One of the biggest challenges we’re going to have this year is teammates thinking our success is inherited, when it’s the farthest from that,” senior captain and safety Tyler Lee said.
Lee clarified that there were a lot of legitimate excuses that accounted for the sub-par weight room attendance, but overall there was poor communication.
Any lack of commitment will hinder Bellarmine’s success, Ervin said. He also pointed out that he and his fellow co-captains will do everything in their power to help bring this group together as one.
“We can have so much talent,” he said. “Talent can go so far, but your effort and commitment to the team is what really shows throughout the whole season.”
With Bellarmine being a perennial postseason contender, it’s easy to talk expectations this time of year.
Philichi mentioned that this team often takes more of an underdog role, in that other local teams such as Skyline and Bellevue garner more of the spotlight. He said that while Bellarmine has had big-name talent in the past (such as quarterback Sefo Liufau, now starting at Colorado), it comes down to coaching in this program.
“I think what sets this team apart is kind of the team cohesion,” Philichi said. “Our coaching staff is one of the best in the entire state. I think they count on us, but also we count on them and we can always count on them.”
The season starts on Sept. 5 for the Lions when they’ll take on Bonney Lake at home.
Below, check out my interview with Bellarmine’s head coach, Tom Larsen.