Many of the Lenape seniors who were instrumental in the school's first South Jersey title in football trace their success to early years with the Fleetwood youth program in Mt. Laurel.

Not Aaron Acosta.

"I used to go watch them," Acosta said. "I was friends with all of them. But I was a baseball guy."

Maybe Lenape goes 11-1 this season and captures the South Jersey Group 5 title with a 10-7 victory over Rancocas Valley in a slugfest on a cold and clear Saturday night at Rowan University if Acosta had stayed a "baseball guy."

Maybe the Indians hold 10 of their 12 opponents to a touchdown or less, with five shutouts.

Maybe they hoist that trophy in the air if Acosta stayed on the other side of the fence, as he did in youth football.

But not likely.

The 6-foot-2, 270-pound Acosta was the most dominant player on South Jersey's most dominant defense, a "freak" of a lineman who demanded double-team blocking on almost every snap, according to Lenape coach Tim McAneney.

In just his fourth season in the sport, Acosta is The Inquirer's South Jersey Defensive Player of the Year.

"What he did was just amazing," McAneney said. "He was getting double-teamed, triple-teamed, and teams still couldn't contain him.

"Anybody who watches film and knows football knows he was the best player on the field."

Statistics were a poor measure of Acosta's play, although he did lead the Indians with six tackles and also recovered a fumble in the championship game.

"He made some plays in that game I still can't believe it," McAneney said.

Acosta made his mark with hustle and heart. His team-first play was typical of the approach of Lenape's seniors, who transformed the program into a South Jersey power in their four seasons at the school on Hartford Road in Medford.

Acosta said he enjoyed the extra attention from blockers, because he relished the physical contact in the hurly-burly along the line of scrimmage and also because he knew it would free up teammates such as linebackers Mike Galaida and Zach Cole to make plays.

"My team always comes first," Acosta said. "We lost last year in the finals (to Timber Creek in the South Jersey Group 4 title game) and I hated that. We all hated that.

"We were determined to come back this year and win it. That was the mission all season, the goal, and nobody let any individual goals get in the way."

Acosta's physical play was the foundation of Lenape's defensive dominance. The Indians shut out Egg Harbor Township, Burlington Township, Notre Dame, Vineland and Shawnee. They held Rancocas Valley (twice, although the Red Devils also kicked a field goal in the first meeting), Seneca, Trenton and Hopewell Valley to a touchdown.

The only teams to score more than one touchdown on Lenape this season were Cherokee and Howell, and the Indians won both of those games by a combined 42 points.

"It was our chemistry, more than anything," Acosta said. "We've been friends for so long, and we do everything together."

Seniors Aaron Acosta (left) and Mike Galaida led Lenape’s defense.
Tom Gralish/Staff photographer
Seniors Aaron Acosta (left) and Mike Galaida led Lenape’s defense.

Acosta was buddies with many of Lenape's football players as a grammar-school and middle-school student. He just focused on baseball.

"I thought that was my game," Acosta said. "Those guys kept telling me I had to play football."

In eighth grade, future Lenape standouts such as running back JoJo Kellum, quarterback Matt Lajoie and lineman Lawrence Sutton turned up the pressure on Acosta, urging him to try football.

"I told them, 'OK, freshman year, I'll give it a try,'" Acosta said.

After his freshman season, Acosta decided to give up baseball, spent more time in the weight room, and devote himself to football. He was starting on the varsity as a sophomore, improved as a junior and blossomed into a dominant defensive player this season, according to McAneney.

Kellum, the Indians' star running back, saw it coming.

"The kid was a freak athlete on the diamond," Kellum said. "In eighth grade, he was the biggest kid but also the fastest kid. I was telling him, 'You have to try football. With that size and speed, you can be a force.'

"Look at him now."