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Football Preview: With long wait, Episcopal Academy intent on keeping hold of crown

Episcopal Academy head coach Todd Fairlie will have to engineer new lines this year, but he has plenty of talent back from a shortened 2020 to defend the Inter-Ac title that the Churchmen won in 2019. (MNG File)

NEWTOWN SQUARE >> The players, many of them, are gone. The opportunity for a victory tour, wiped away in a pandemic, has passed. The celebration has settled. The stakes have been changed. The competition has re-tooled.

As for the trophy, the one lent to the football champion of the Inter-Ac League until the next champion is decided, that has gone no place. Rather, it has remained on the same shelf since 2019, a reminder that Episcopal Academy technically is the defending champion of a league that has trafficked in quality high school football since the late 1800s.

“And we’re going to keep that trophy here,” said defensive back Mekhi Rodgers, a member of the 2019 championship team. “Trust me.”

The Churchmen did go 1-2 in a rushed Inter-Ac mini-season late last year, but it was understood that no champion would be declared. Since two classes have graduated since Episcopal went 4-1 in league play for its first football championship since 2012, much has changed.

What has not changed is the pride in that trophy and the determination to win it again.

“I mean, they are going to have to take it,” Rodgers said. “You are going to have to wrestle it out of our hands. Because, man, we’re not going to give it up.”

Rodgers, described by coach Todd Fairlie as “an exciting defensive player,” will be key to protecting the title. He could also mix into a veteran receiver rotation that includes seniors Neo Vossschulte, a 6-foot-4 talent who has committed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and deep threat Bryce Cooper. Senior quarterback Jake Fant will have plenty of options when he drops back.

“Jake started for us last year,” Fairlie said. “He’s a great kid, very talented. And we’re excited to have him for another year. He’s a catcher for the baseball team and is as experienced a player as we have coming back. So we feel pretty good about him.

“Bryce was a sophomore when we won the championship, and he’s a pretty dangerous playmaker. And Neo is a big target that we are excited about.”

Fairlie’s challenge will be to reimagine an offensive line brushed away by two years of caps and gowns. As camp dawned, he was anticipating an all-underclass line, yet was enthused with the potential of junior guard Michael Martillotti, junior tackle Victor Coleman and junior tight end Vern Holley.

Brief as it was, Fairlie believes the 2020 experience was helpful to outside linebacker Andrew McMeekin, who will play lacrosse at Princeton, junior safety T.J. Cadden and Rodgers.

“We look great,” said Vossschulte, a Marple Newtown transfer. “Every single day, we’re coming out and competing. We’re working really hard. Guys are not afraid to compete. Guys are stepping up, younger guys against older guys, so we are putting ourselves in the best opportunity for success. I think we are going to have a great year. We preach that we have to do it as a team. And if we don’t do it as a team, then we’re not going to be able to do it.

“It’s always our mindset that we are still the champions. But we have to take it week by week. The goal is always to be the champs. And we’re going to do all we can to defend that trophy.”

The record and the trophy case say that the Churchmen know how to get that done.

“The one thing I remember about the championship team was the brotherhood we all had,” Cooper said. “So my job as a senior is to recreate the connection that we had. That was the one thing that led us to victory.

“Obviously, last year we didn’t have a full season. But we do have the blueprint. We do know what we have to do.”

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