Lawenzo Clarke tried football when he was 12.

"I quit after one game," Clarke said.

He tried it again last year.

"I didn't like it at first because of all the running," Clarke said. "But then we got our pads and started hitting, and I liked it."

Woodbury (10-1) has reached the South Jersey Group 1 championship game for a lot of reasons. The most obvious has been the play of Alabama-bound Anthony Averett, the Thundering Herd's all-purpose star.

But another big factor has been the improved play of the Woodbury front lines, especially Clarke.

"Huge improvement," Woodbury coach Zack Valentine said of Clarke's progress from his junior to his senior season. "He's still learning how to play. But he's getting better and better."

Woodbury will need strong play from Clarke and the rest of the front lines to stand up to Penns Grove (11-0) in the sectional title game Saturday at 10 a.m. at Rowan University.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Clarke is looking forward to the opportunity.

"It's going to be a challenge," Clarke said. "But I can't wait."

Woodbury was 5-5 last season despite the presence of Averett, one of the state's top athletes. The Thundering Herd lacked experience along the front lines.

Woodbury has doubled its win total this season. Valentine said that's a direct result of the improved play of the team's top linemen, such as seniors Clarke and Jahlil Robinson, juniors Max Belko and Marquis Aaron and freshman Nazir Harris.

"Last year, we had a bunch of linemen who had never played together before," Valentine said. "This year, they've jelled together. They are so much more physical."

Clarke said he "wasn't into sports" as a youngster. He said some of his classmates as well as Woodbury school officials convinced him to try football last season.

"They were looking at me in the hallways and saying that I should be out there," Clarke said.

Clarke admits that he struggled at times as a junior.

"I was just pushing when I was blocking," Clarke said. "I didn't understand trying to control the person."

Stronger line play has helped Averett run for more than 1,200 yards, including 120 in Saturday's 14-13 win over Glassboro in the sectional semifinals. The Thundering Herd also has gotten good work from senior running back Dwaun Martin, junior running back Jeray Demby and sophomore wingback Daevon Ayers.

Clarke has made such improvement that he hopes to play college football. He might attend a prep school or junior college next year.

Woodbury faces a major challenge from a Penns Grove team that has outscored opponents by a combined 591-32.

Clarke and his teammates know the numbers. He said they are not daunted.

"Everybody is saying that nobody can beat them and how scary they are," Clarke said of Penns Grove. "They've been beating people pretty bad. But we're prepared for the challenge."

Woodbury Results

W    Collingswood, 42-7

L    West Deptford,          45-24

W    Lindenwold, 49-0

W    Paulsboro, 20-10

W    Haddonfield, 20-13

W    Sterling, 28-22

W    Audubon, 42-0

W    Haddon Township,       38-0

W    *Wildwood, 49-0

W    Gateway, 58-0

W    *Glassboro, 14-13

* SJ 1 tournament

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Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/

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