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Leary's arrival as coach spurred turnaround at Highland

Brian Leary had been more than content being an assistant football coach for 16 years at Triton, never really thinking about climbing the coaching ladder.

Brian Leary had been more than content being an assistant football coach for 16 years at Triton, never really thinking about climbing the coaching ladder.

And then something changed.

The Highland football job opened after the 2014 season and a person who thought he'd be a career assistant coach finally decided to go after it for one simple reason.

"From my perspective, Highland was kind of like a sleeping giant," Leary thought.

A sleeping giant?

A resident of Gloucester Township, Leary knew the history.

Highland, which began playing football in 1967, had just three winning seasons in school history and never achieved more than seven wins in any single year.

Some would suggest that Leary's vision was somewhat blurred, but he had helped coach the midget program and was confident in the players and his own ability to lead them.

After going 5-5 in 2015, the tone was set for the best year in Highland football history.

The Tartans went 9-2, earned a championship banner by winning the West Jersey Football League Royal Division, and qualified for the playoffs. Highland won a game in the South Jersey Group 4 tournament over a Cherry Hill West team that had beaten the Tartans in the regular season.

For guiding Highland to a championship and record-setting season, Leary has been named The Inquirer's South Jersey football coach of the year.

Highland was 11-39 in the five years before Leary took over, including 2-8 the year before his arrival.

His goal was to make sure his players were in the best possible shape while he also immediately began working on their psyches.

"He came in and always had trust in us," said running back-defensive back Matt McBride, who had eight interceptions this season.

The fact that Leary gravitated toward coaching football is certainly no surprise, considering his upbringing. His father, Jim, was a head coach for two decades for the Bellmawr Purple Eagles midget program.

"If there was a piece of paper in the house, there would be X's and O's drawn on it," Leary said.

Leary credits his father with fostering his football acumen.

"I had no choice but to learn football from him," Leary recalls, laughing. "But I learned so much of the game from him."

Jim Leary, as one can expect, is a proud father. He had only one beef with his son.

"I thought he should have been a head coach earlier," Jim Leary said. "He really works well with the youngsters and has a great knowledge of the game."

Leary, a 1987 graduate of Paul VI, was a quarterback in high school and remained so in college at William Paterson. He was so successful that Leary is in the William Paterson Athletic Hall of Fame.

That still might not make him the most famous quarterback in his football-crazed family. His nephew, Devin Leary, is a record-setting quarterback for two-time defending South Jersey Group 4 champion Timber Creek and The Inquirer's South Jersey offensive player of the year.

Yet Leary, the father of five, doesn't care about fame or accolades. He loves the challenge of coaching, attempting to push all the right buttons and, in his case, call the right plays.

Yes, he was the offensive play-caller for a Highland team that averaged 28 points per game.

As with other teams, the Tartans had to work around some key injuries, but their coach kept the course.

When Highland won its seventh game of the season, tying the school record for wins set in 1973, 1989, and 1993, the players were ecstatic.

Leary, while wanting his team to enjoy the moment, also reminded the players that the bar was set a little higher. His message: Don't be content with what you accomplished; there is more to achieve.

The players responded accordingly, winning that one playoff game and later ending the season with a Thanksgiving victory over Triton, which clinched the division title.

For a coach who waited a long time for a chance and a team that waited even longer for this type of glory, it was the perfect pairing during a season of unprecedented accomplishment at Highland.