By Geoff Morrow:
Nobody misses a beat.
Asked which player is most likely to draw a flag for some misplaced aggression, the Northern linemen and tight ends collectively smile, point and announce their answer: "Blake!"
Blake Sanchez, all 6-foot-1, 230 pounds of him, beams with a peculiar sense of pride and responds: "I'm just an aggressive person. You need to be aggressive to be a good offensive lineman."
Picks and Predictions: Week 9
4th Down Magazine Player of the Week: Dylan Rabuck
Tri-Valley: Six pack of stories to watch
Episode 9: High School Football Now with Eric Epler and Geoff Morrow
The moment at Northern football practice earlier this week in Dillsburg reveals two things:
1. This group of Polar Bears is on the same page;
2. The boys have figured out how much fun it is to dominate the trenches and win some games.
Bill Miller's Northern squad has shrugged off a sluggish start to the 2017 season and has positioned itself to make a run at the District 3 Class 4A playoffs, winning three of its last four games.
The Polar Bears (4-4, 3-1) are alone in second place in the Mid-Penn Colonial and currently 10th in the latest district power rankings, two spots and mere decimal points outside of the playoff bubble. There are division games remaining against Greencastle-Antrim (2-6) and West Perry (3-5).
"We always knew we had the potential to be a pretty good ball club, and lately they've played to that potential," said Miller, who credits the offensive line for fueling this second-half surge after a 1-3 start to the campaign.
Northern returned most of its line from last year's 7-4 playoff team, but expectations for this season — at least outside the Northern locker room — were tempered by key graduation losses at various skill positions.
But longtime offensive line coach Marty Green, a former lineman at Edinboro University in the 1970s, has helped mold this platoon into a serious difference-maker.
"He deserves a lot of the accolades," Miller said of Green.
"I'm not sure we have any of the best five linemen in the league, but we have the best unit of linemen," said Green, who served as Northern's head coach in the late 1990s before returning to an assistant role under Rick Mauck and remaining on staff through multiple changes since Mauck's retirement in 2013.
"They work with each other, compete with each other, and they help each other. Last year we were the question mark. This year we said we're not the question mark, we need to be the exclamation point."
If there's a star among the linemen (and linemen are, sadly, rarely stars), it's center Nick Lerew.
With a name well known in Dillsburg — his cousin is former Northern star and MLB pitcher Anthony Lerew — Nick Lerew is the quiet, commanding leader, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound cannonball.
"He's the leader of the offense," said fellow senior A.J. Lodovici, a starting tight end and linebacker. "He can lift a lot more weight than all of us. He works very hard in the weight room, and he leads us out in the field."
On either side of Lerew are the guards, Ryan Way on the left and Joseph Samsel on the right. Jordan Oliver sometimes spells Samsel at right, which was the only starting spot to be replaced with the graduation of Kyle Goss.
The tackles are Sanchez on the left and Gage Mummert on the right. Spencer Breski rotates with Mummert, while Lodovici, Kyle Kerstetter and Cameron Rafuse fill in at tight end.
"We knew we had to connect as brothers," said Lerew, who, along with Sanchez, is drawing some NCAA Division III interest. "And so far we've done that this year."
While the offense needed to replace QB Curtis Robison (now on Penn State's baseball team) and some talented wide receivers, it did welcome back Kyle Swartz, who showed flashes of greatness last season as a freshman running back.
This year, Swartz added 20 pounds of muscle and improved his form, and he's blossoming behind this group of linemen.
"We can really push people down field if we get our blocks right," Oliver said. "We have a lot of strong guys along the front, so our running game is really where it's at."
Through eight games, Swartz has amassed 1,136 yards and 14 touchdowns on 178 carries. That's 6.4 yards a pop.
"You never know where he's going to go," Way said of Swartz, who's coming off back-to-back 200-yard games, including a career-high 215 yards in last week's 14-7 victory over defending Colonial champ Shippensburg. "You just have to stay on your block, and he'll make a cut and take it to the house."
Add first-year starting QB Chris Barrett (501 yards, four TDs on 79 carries), and the running game has been very profitable.
"A lot of people thought when Curtis left, we weren't really going to have a chance," Samsel said. "But Chris really stepped into the position, and he really thinks about what he's going to do before he does it."
While the boys certainly prefer punishing defenses with vigorous run-blocking, they've also provided Barrett (64-for-121, 683 yards) ample opportunity to learn on the job with outstanding pass protection.
"If we can make him comfortable back there, that's one less thing to check mark," Green said of his quarterback, who's also an outstanding javelin thrower in the spring.
"I don't want him thinking about what linebacker is going to come. That's all taken care of. It's one less thing he has to think about."
When challenged after last season by Green, Miller and even Lerew, the linemen and tight ends took it upon themselves to become the 2017 Northern nucleus.
Mummert also credited former Northern star and Penn State tight end Dominic Salamone for weight room assistance starting in January.
"With putting in that much time [in the weight room], we got much stronger and much faster, and I think that's where a lot of our power came from," Mummert said.
Coaching helps, too, and the boys are grateful to have the experienced tandem of Green and longtime Central York head coach Brad Livingston as the offensive and defensive line coaches.
It's also important, Miller said, to keep things simple. The biggest advantage of having an experienced line, he added, is being able to play faster.
"When you have a lot of players back, sometimes you try to get too far too fast, and you lose sight of the fact that there's a handful of plays you have to run well," Miller said. "Sometimes you can get a little overanxious to redesign a wheel when all you really need to do is make that wheel spin better.
"Last couple weeks, we've looked very complicated, but essentially we've been pretty basic when it comes down to it."
Basic? Maybe. Basically pushing foes around and making a late run at the playoffs? Definitely.
"We're just trying to win out and make playoffs," Kerstetter said. "Then we'll see what happens."