NETHER PROVIDENCE >> John Harrar stood off to the side at practice Tuesday afternoon sporting a Strath Haven coat. If you didn’t know him, you might assume he was a coach.
As his teammates ended the workday with running drills, Harrar offered high-fives and words of encouragement.
The 6-9, 230-pound senior defensive end/tight end was resting a sore ankle. He returned to practice Wednesday and vowed to be 100 percent ready for the big game.
“I have to be,” he said.
Friday, Harrar and the Panthers host undefeated Springfield, the No. 1 team in the county. The Cougars are feeling confident after last week’s dramatic overtime win at Ridley. It was the first time in 22 years that Springfield has defeated Ridley.
So the Panthers get their shot to knock down one of two remaining unbeatens in the Central League. While Springfield is the favorite, Strath Haven is no pushover. For the first time in several years, the Panthers have a team that many feel can compete with the league’s best.
Harrar has led the charge at defensive end. According to Havenfootball.net, Harrar ranks second on the team in tackles (34), first in sacks (three), first in quarterback hurries (six) and first in caused fumbles (two).
Harrar had never played football before last year.
“I can’t say enough good things about John. He’s tremendous for us,” Strath Haven coach Kevin Clancy said. “This senior class is a very different senior class in the sense that, when they were freshmen, the freshmen team folded. I made a concerted effort to get kids in the school who did not play football to get out and play. (Quarterback) Evan Atsaves is a baseball player and he came out. Hunter Mazur is a lacrosse player and he came out. We got John Harrar off the basketball team. So, we got guys in their junior years, coming out to play football for the first time. We went through the growing pains of that last year, and now they’re all starting to round into shape.”
Harrar is a co-captain with Atsaves and Mazur.
“Last year was like freshman football for some of those guys,” Clancy said. “They’ve become leaders of the team. They’re character guys. They’re the kind of guys you want on the team and they really helped change the attitude of the entire football team. They’ve all been great.”
Harrar and the Panthers (3-3) look to put the rest of the league on notice with an upset of Springfield. Moreover, a win would strengthen their chances of earning a berth in the District One Class 5A playoffs. After routing Penncrest a week ago, the Panthers are in 12th place in the District One standings. The top 16 teams qualify for the postseason tournament.
But none of that is on the mind of Harrar and his teammates. Their focus is figuring out how to stop the Cougars.
Strath Haven could be 4-2, maybe 5-1. The Panthers played Ridley tough for one half a few weeks back. On opening night, they squandered a huge lead against Interboro.
Harrar especially regrets losing to Interboro.
“We could have won that game,” he said. “I think if we had that senior leadership, including myself, we could have made that goal line stop.”
Which explains why Harrar has made a conscious effort to become a more vocal leader.
“I’m not one to get on someone, but if there’s something that I see, I’ll say something,” Harrar said. “… We know what we’re doing is right and we just got to believe. Our assistant coach says, ‘believe, believe, believe’ or it’s not going to happen.
“Our coaches are coming after us this week. We always have a chance on Friday night, and the coaches are trying to get in everyone’s head that, just because they’re 6-0 and we’re 3-3 doesn’t mean that we don’t (have a chance). We have to believe.”
Strath Haven boasts a potent rushing attack averaging 215 yards per game, seventh best in Delco. Zach Newlon has 473 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Mekhi Hill has 315 yards and three TDs.
Rob DuBois and Lee Holbert have thrived on the offensive line. Although Harrar is used sparingly in the passing game, he is very good in his offensive role as a blocking tight end.
“We have to take care of their strength. Coach Clancy has been telling us about their two defensive tackles,” Harrar said of the Cougars. “You look at them on paper, they’re maybe a little over 200 pounds. But on film, they’ll shove you, push you, read you. And we like to run the ball with the fullback blocking. So, we’re looking to take care of that and execute our plays.”
Harrar is garnering interest from colleges for both his football talent and exploits on the basketball court. This time last year, had you asked him which sport he would prefer to play in college, Harrar would most likely have said basketball. But he admits to keeping his options open.
“I’m leaving the door open for football,” he said. “I just received my first offer from West Point. So, that’s good. I’ve been talking to Temple and a couple other schools. But most important to me is, I’m looking at the academic situation. I like the question, if I can’t play sports, am I going to be happy?”
For now, Clancy and the Panthers are happy to have him.
“I think football has been a great experience for him,” Clancy said. “He’s had to grow into that role of leader and he’s done a real good job. His effort to the ball is phenomenal, even when he’s exhausted. He’s not just a big kid, he’s a player.”