Michael Grapin never expected to earn the honor so quickly, but it's one that he's excited to carry forward when the Springfield football season gets underway.
The No. 32 jersey has traditionally been given to one of the best Cougars on defense, and given Springfield's long line of impressive linebackers, usually goes to one of them. Last year, All-Delco linebacker and three-time lacrosse All-American Pat Clemens wore the number, and this year, Grapin was a bit taken aback when he got word that he'd wear the number.
"I've worked hard for it, but it's just an honor that they let me wear it," Grapin said. "Pat Clemens wore it last year and that's who I learned everything from. It's a great sign of respect for the coaches to let me wear it as a junior."
Grapin will be tasked with leading the defense, but there's plenty of talent for coach Chris Britton to work with heading into the 2019 campaign. A year after posting a 7-4 mark that included a postseason berth, the Cougars are looking for even bigger and better things, like perhaps a return to the 13-1 ways of the 2017 season.
"We have more than 20 seniors on the team as well as a good, young nucleus," Britton said. "(Senior) Kevin Rechner is our starting quarterback and he's a big, physical quarterback who can do a little bit of everything. He's not slow, so we can run or throw with him, which gives us variety."
Rechner is flanked in the backfield by juniors Jack Clark and Jayden Baiden. Clark, a standout lacrosse player, missed some time last year with injuries, then promptly ripped off a 32-yard touchdown run in his first game back. He's got the ability to slip through small gaps and turn them into big plays with his shiftiness, while Baiden - who also plays linebacker - is more of a straight-ahead power back.
When Rechner drops back, he'll have his choice of athletic targets, including seniors Tommy Dougherty, Aidan Shandley and Alex Williams. Shandley, who also starts at strongside defensive end, is a physical mismatch at 6-3, 215 pounds, and he can also flex out to give defenses trouble out wide. Williams is a 6-2, 190-pounder who Britton thinks is primed for a big year, while Dougherty is the type of underneath slot guy who can move the chains and be reliable on third down.
"We graduated a lot of seniors that we relied on heavily, but we return our whole offensive line, which can really get the run game going," said Shandley, who'll be asked to be a big part of that running game as a blocker, too. "Coming back for a second year of playing varsity, we just have to show the young guys how it's done and lead by example and just make sure that everyone's doing their jobs, but I trust all of my teammates."
Right tackle Nick Marascio and center Nick Cariola - also a defensive tackle - headline that vaunted offensive line that should be able to push many defenses around.
Many of those faces can also be found on the other side of the ball, but there's also a ton of optimism surrounding senior defensive end Devin Allen. Originally a linebacker, Allen filled in for an injured Shandley last year and never relinquished his role on the line, and he'll be a fearsome pass rusher on the weak side.
"He worked his way into the lineup last year and we couldn't get him off the field," Britton said. "We threw him in as a sub and he never gave up the spot, and he's really made the most of his offseason."
Cariola and junior Donovan Dyitt figure to plug up the holes in the middle of the defensive line from their tackle spots.
It'll be an interesting season for the Cougars, who won't play a true home game because of the reconstruction at the high school. Rather, Springfield will head to Strath Haven's King Field for its home games, and while it's not the most ideal setup, the Cougars are focused on who they're playing, not where they're playing.
"It'll be a little different, but we just have to go out and compete," Grapin said. "We have the Springfield mentality and we're going to compete, and our coaches are going to have us ready to go."