Joe Tripoli looks like a football player.

He's a brawny kid. He's tough. He's athletic. He's drawn to contact.

He's ideal for the sport.

He just never bothered to play it.

"I was one of those annoying kids," Tripoli said, explaining why he never played football or much of anything else as a youngster in Blackwood. "I guess you could say I was a late bloomer."

Tripoli started wrestling in sixth grade. Even that was late for that sport, although he has developed into a standout upperweight for Highland High School's powerful program.

Tripoli played baseball for a while but didn't stick with it.

Football?

Not for any youth program.

Not as a freshman at Highland.

Not as a sophomore at Highland.

"I used to work a lot," Tripoli said. "Raking leaves, working with my dad on home-improvement projects."

In the summer before his junior year, Tripoli decided to try football. He mostly played junior varsity in 2015, getting into varsity games on special teams and seeing some spot action along the defensive line.

"It was a learning year for him," Highland coach Brian Leary said. "But he's done a 180 [degree change]."

There are a lot of reasons Highland (8-1) is one of the surprise teams of the South Jersey football season.

The Tartans have won eight games for the first time in the history of the program. They scored the school's first playoff victory last weekend, against Cherry Hill West. They will visit Lenape (9-0) on Friday night in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals with a chance to make their first sectional title game.

It's a credit to Leary, a second-year head coach, and his assistants. It's a credit to Highland seniors such as Orlando Council, Jerry Fuller, and Matt McBride and juniors such as Jared Colbert and Daequan Sanders, among many others.

But Tripoli might be the best symbol of the Tartans' stunning success. He is the out-of-nowhere player for the out-of-nowhere team.

Tripoli has made a major impact as a defensive end and tight end, both in terms of his productive play and also in terms of his diligence and team-first attitude.

"What has been great has been being part of a team," Tripoli said of his football experience. "That's been the best part of this, being here and we're putting Highland football back on the map.

Tripoli said he "didn't even know the rules" when he joined the football team in the summer of 2015.

"I didn't even know what a football play was," Tripoli said. "I would just watch the dude with the ball. I had no idea what the other guys did."

Leary said Tripoli's "work ethic" has been inspiring.

"This is a kid that during summer workouts would ride his bike here every morning," Leary said. "And he doesn't live around the corner."

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Tripoli said he knew he was a valuable member of the team when he made a late sack, strip, and fumble recovery to seal the Tartans' season-opening upset of highly touted Woodrow Wilson.

"That's when I felt like I really was part of it," Tripoli said.

A top student, Tripoli is hoping to win appointment to the Naval Academy, wrestle for the Midshipmen, and commit his future to service.

"I want to serve so bad," Tripoli said. "I want to be part of something bigger than me."

Pick Six

1

Millville (8-1) at Rancocas Valley (8-1), Friday, 7 p.m.

This South Jersey Group 5 semifinal features two of South Jersey's top juniors in the Red Devils' Iverson Clement and the Thunderbolts' Clayton Scott.

Pick: Rancocas Valley, 27-26.

2

Highland (8-1) at Lenape (9-0), Friday, 7 p.m.

Two teams designed to win with strong ground games and sturdy defenses clash in this South Jersey Group 4 semifinal. Special teams could be a big factor.

Pick: Lenape, 17-10.

3

Delsea (6-4) at Burlington Twp. (8-1), Friday, 7 p.m.

The four-time defending South Jersey Group 3 champion Crusaders are on the road for this sectional semifinal. Led by senior tackle Sirvon Wigglesworth, Burlington Township has allowed just 19 points in winning its last six games.

Pick: Delsea, 23-17.

4

Collingswood (7-2) at West Deptford (9-0), Friday, 7 p.m.

Both teams should hug the ground in this South Jersey Group 2 semifinal. The host Eagles rely heavily on senior running backs Gio Gismondi and Anthony Seas, while the Panthers hope to spring loose speedy senior quarterback Jovon Allie.

Pick: West Deptford, 27-13.

5

Willingboro (7-3) at Cedar Creek (9-1), Saturday, 1 p.m.

This battle in the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals matches the upstart Chimeras with the defending champion Pirates. This will be the last home game for Cedar Creek seniors Bo Melton, Jesse Milza, Owen Bowles, Isaiah Watson, and others.

Pick: Cedar Creek, 24-14.

6

Pennsville (7-2) at Paulsboro (8-1), Saturday, 1 p.m.

This South Jersey Group 1 semifinal matches the defending champion Eagles with the red-hot Red Raiders. Paulsboro has won eight in a row behind senior quarterback Kyle Jones and junior all-purpose Dehron Holloway.

Pick: Paulsboro, 27-22.

Last week: 6-1.

Year to date: 58-12.

@PhilAnastasia

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