By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Things are a little bit different for Jonathan Crowley this season.
After spending the first two years of his high school varsity football career playing alongside former Millbrook players A.J. Bolden and Grant Johnson on the defensive line, Crowley, now a senior with the Pioneers, suddenly finds himself in unfamiliar territory.
"Being a senior, it's a little bit different this year -- we had 21 seniors last year, so I was kind of just like the guy trying to do their best," Crowley said recently. "But this year on the team we have a lot of young sophomores so I'm trying to be a role model to them and try to show them that with hard work you can start and you can play well. I just like to be a role model and provide leadership wherever it's needed in the game."
Crowley is no stranger to being looked at as a leader along the defensive line. The senior has seen plenty of playing time there for the Pioneers over the last two years, and last season he tied for the team lead in tackles with 99 and led Millbrook with six sacks.
But in his two previous seasons, Crowley had the benefit of having that extra help, of working alongside those older guys on the team that he could look up to and learn from. This season, Crowley must play the role of mentor to his younger teammates, much like the role that Bolden and Johnson played before him.
"We worked harder because you were a little scared -- you realize big A.J. and Grant, they're not here anymore. It's you and your buddy [Logan] Weems and [Johnathan] Pearson," Crowley said of the offseason preparation of he and his defensive line mates. "Realizing that it's your turn, you bring something else when that happens."
It's not as if Crowley is all by himself on the defensive line. Crowley will be joined this season by his good friend and classmate Pearson (Millbrook head coach Josh Haymore says the pair is inseparable) and Weems.
Haymore said Weems and Crowley are the two biggest leaders that have arisen so far in fall practice, and Haymore raves about Crowley's technical ability and knowledge of the game, as well as Crowley's physicality on the football field.
"He's a very physical individual," Haymore said. "He's as nice as all get-out, he's a grade A guy ... but when he puts those gloves on and that helmet on and those shoulder pads, he's a totally different beast."
That physicality will be doubly important for Millbrook this season, as Crowley is also expected to fill in on an offensive line that lost every starter from a year ago.
Haymore said Crowley actually approached him about playing fullback this season, but Haymore convinced him otherwise by mentioning that offensive lineman get to see action on every play compared to the limited activity a fullback would get in Millbrook's offense.
The move to offensive tackle, where Crowley has little game experience, has the senior a little apprehensive, but he is willing to do whatever it takes to help Millbrook have a successful season.
"Trying to fill A.J.'s and Grant's shoes on the offensive line, that's kind of scary, but I'm going to do my best," Crowley said.
Although Crowley will see time on both sides of the ball, he remains a defensive player first and foremost, and he said the Pioneers' defense is taking it upon itself to lead Millbrook to success this season.
What little experience Millbrook returns from last season largely resides on the defensive side of the ball, with senior linebacker Devon Sharp (87 tackles), junior linebacker Dylan Wisman (74 tackles) and senior defensive back Taylor James (31 tackles) joining Crowley.
"We're excited. We lost a lot of pieces on offense, so our defense has to be sturdy this year," Crowley said. "We can't allow as many rushing yards as we did last year. We're going to have to stiffen up. Everyone is working hard on defense."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org