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Football Preview: Barlee brings the noise in Episcopal Academy’s versatile offense

NEWTOWN SQUARE >> A country song followed a rap song, which followed a classic-rock song. Players from The Episcopal Academy seemed to run synchronously to the beats that boomed through their stadium’s speaker system.

Sure, the Churchmen were only going through walk-through drills at the time, but it’s never too early to prepare for playing in a big-game setting.

“A while back, we piped in crowd noise to simulate a hostile environment,” said fifth-year coach Todd Fairlie, “but the folks on the other sports field were getting mad. I have to admit, it was kind of loud.”

Off a down season in 2014, Episcopal Academy is hoping to make noise for different reasons this time around. Now three seasons removed from that blemish-free campaign in 2012, in which Fairlie’s team won the Inter-Academic League crown, the Churchmen are looking to reassert themselves as a dominant force.

To that effect, they are preparing both physically — with an on-field soundtrack thumping their eardrums — and mentally. One of EA’s coaches was calculated in his decorating of the team’s weight room, choosing to post the opponents and final scores from each of the Churchmen’s Inter-Ac losses in the last two seasons.

“When you’re seeing ’49-21’ and ’40-12’ on the wall every time you go in to lift, it gets to you,” said Jon’avin Freeman, a junior. “Nobody likes to lose, especially not in that fashion. When I see those numbers, it brings me back to those games. And it makes me hungry.”

Episcopal Academy’s Jon’avin Freeman, 2, one of the candidates to start at quarterback, hands off the ball to Dee Barlee, who was the Churchmen’s chief weapon a year ago with 1,289 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. (Times Staff/Tom Kelly IV)

Episcopal Academy’s Jon’avin Freeman, 2, one of the candidates to start at quarterback, hands off the ball to Dee Barlee, who was the Churchmen’s chief weapon a year ago with 1,289 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. (Times Staff/Tom Kelly IV)

Freeman and fellow junior C.J. McAnally are in the mix for Episcopal Academy’s starting quarterback job. (Gone is two-year starter Ryan Whayland, who graduated and took his 3,674-yard, 28-touchdown resume with him to Ursinus.) Their coach isn’t terribly worried about which of them gets the nod.

“They’re in a ton of classes together, so their chemistry is good,” Fairlie said, “and they’re two of our better football players, so they’re going to be so involved and helping us somewhere that it doesn’t matter who (is the starter).”

The engine for this installment of EA’s program is the offense, led by Dee Barlee. The senior back, who plays to contact, is coming off a banner year, in which he rushed for 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns. He didn’t look timid in a hit-free August practice, jokingly mixing it up with teammates who were still a week away from having their coaches grant permission to tackle.

Barlee, one of EA’s co-captains, committed to his position in the offseason. He attended camps in the hope to make himself a more-dynamic back.

“I want to become more shifty and able to slip a tackle or two after first contact,” Barlee said. “I’ve been a I’m-gonna-run-you-over kind of guy my whole life. I don’t change. I’ve always said, ‘Just try to stop me.’ But now, I think I’ve improved.”

Barlee will have help up front, from junior two-way linemen Dallas Taylor and Bob Gibson. Beyond them, the Churchmen’s offensive and defensive lines are thin at experience.

Episcopal will have a bevy of weapons offensively. Junior tight end Kyle Virbitsky has the size and experience to be a threat anywhere on the field. Shane Conlin, a junior wideout, measures to 6-5. And senior co-captain Christian Feliziani, EA’s leading receiver last year, with 467 yards on 31 catches, is not to be overlooked, either.

“Other than Dee, I think we have quite a few options on offense,” Feliziani said. “We’re very diverse and that’ll keep a lot of teams on their toes when they play us. We’re capable of a lot.

“But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to have to win games in the fourth quarter by working harder and paying attention to small details. We don’t have 11 Division I guys on this team, but I do think that when we play together, we might be difficult to beat.”

This story appears in the Delco Times Football Preview, available on newsstands Friday.

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