UPPER DARBY >> Bonner & Prendergast’s Mike Larsen said he lost 30 pounds in preparation for the 2016 season.
Larsen’s thinner frame has paid dividends on the field. He is the Friars’ leading pass rusher and is close to matching his season-high in sacks (eight) from a year ago.
He’s one of the MVPs on a defense that has maintained an aggressive approach during the course of an up-and-down season.
“I lost all that weight mostly because I went to about 10 or 11 (college) camps this summer,” Larsen said. “My main focus has been to rush the passer a little better. Last year I came into the season out of shape, so I wanted to get a quick jumpstart this year.”
A three-year varsity member, Larsen and some of his other defensive mates, including linebacker Shawn Harmon and defensive backs Tom Millison and Brandon Bettole, believe the Friars (3-4) are turning the corner following a 1-4 start. Bonner & Prendie has won its last two decisions by a combined score of 85-30 and sits in fourth place in the Catholic League Blue Division.
But even when times were tough for the Friars, the defense kept the same attitude. They want to hit you, hurt you and force turnovers. Through seven games, the Friars have 18 takeaways, which ranks among the best in Delco.
“It comes all the way back to practice,” said Harmon, who has four touchdown runs as the team’s top fullback. “We’ve got to keep the intensity up and the energy and physicality. That’s what we have to do (to be successful).”
Bonner & Prendie’s defense allowed an average of 332 yards per game through the first three weeks. Over the last three games, the defense has given up an average of 233.5 yards. Nothing spectacular, for sure, but the improvement is obvious.
“It’s mainly because we have great coaches on defense. They know how to get us ready,” Millison said. “I know how to play safety, cornerback, linebacker. The coaches teach you every position, it’s awesome. Every practice we come out 15 minutes early, doing our assignments, even on offensive days. It’s the players, but it’s definitely the coaches, too. They’ve been great.”
The Friars have always been known for their hard-nosed approach on the football field. And no matter what the scoreboard reads, they have upheld that gritty mentality.
“Even if we’re losing, we all want to go out and play football, make tackles, make some plays. The coaches have been sending some pressure, too,” Bettole said. “The last couple games they’ve been blitzing all of us, just so we can take it to (the opposition). We were getting tired of losing. So, we just want to ramp up the pressure, have some fun and make some plays in the backfield.”
Millison and Bettole are the team leaders in interceptions with three apiece. They say there is a friendly competition among them to see who can one-up the other on game day.
“Before we go on the field, we always make jokes like, ‘Hey, I got three, I got to get one more this game.’ But when we’re in the game, we don’t even think about that, we just do our assignments and focus on what we got to do in that game,” Millison said. “Bettole is a great player and he deserves three picks, probably more. Of course we’re going to compete. We’re boys, we’ve been playing together since freshman year. We’re always competitive. It’s fun to see who will finish with more, but it’s not all about that.”
This Friars play host to West Catholic Saturday night, their second game on campus. Having the opportunity to play their home games at home, instead of down the street at Upper Darby High, has made a difference, too.
“I’m happy that it’s my senior year and I get to do it,” Millison said.
It’s clear the Friars have awakened from their early-season swoon. If there was a turning point, they can look back to the 28-0 loss to Cardinal O’Hara in September.
“We were very speechless after that game. We were in shock,” Millison said. “But we’re ready now. We don’t fear any team. We’re back to where we need to be. Obviously, we’ll get to see them later (in the District 12 4A play-in game). I think we’ve definitely gotten better, both defensively and offensively.”
West Catholic is better than its 3-4 record would suggest. The Burrs’ feature a multi-dimensional quarterback in Da’Vion Kidd-Jackson, who has passed for 1,020 yards and 10 TDs. Former Upper Darby player Amadou Barry is one of the top receivers in the Catholic League with 36 catches for 534 yards and six touchdowns.
The progress is nice, but the Friars will tell you there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“The season is not yet turned around. It’s halfway there,” Larsen said. “We have to try and get a win to get to .500. You can never underestimate your opponent. You look at (West Catholic), you see a lot of great athletes. We just have to execute.”