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Matt Lajoie and the Lenape football seniors are like family

The Indians have a Saturday showdown with Rancocas Valley for the South Jersey Group 5 championship at 6 p.m. at Rowan University.

Lenape’s Matt Lajoie (5) throws a pass during the annual Thanksgiving day game against Shawnee.
Lenape’s Matt Lajoie (5) throws a pass during the annual Thanksgiving day game against Shawnee.Read moreTIM TAI

They talk about it after almost every big win.

They talk about it as if it's vindication, as if it's proof that they were right all along.

"We're best friends — we've been playing football together our entire lives — and we don't play to win, we play for each other," quarterback Matt Lajoie reiterated on Thursday, two days before his Lenape football team's Saturday showdown with Rancocas Valley for the South Jersey Group 5 championship at 6 p.m. at Rowan University in Glassboro.

Lajoie talks about his fellow seniors like family. And when he looks back, he thinks as much about pickup football games and family cookouts as he does about big wins.

"We've been a part of each other's lives for so long," Lajoie said, "that even our parents are close at this point."

The Indians' senior class, which makes up the core of this year's team, won a championship together in eighth grade for Fleetwood football, Mt. Laurel's youth football program.

That success — as it tends to do — introduced certain forces that could have pulled the players apart after that year. There was interest from high schools all over the region.

And Lajoie felt it, too.

"It was definitely talked about," he said. "And we decided, as a group, that we wanted to stick together. Even at that time, we knew we could do incredible things if we stuck together."

And they did.

An eighth grade championship set the stage for a historic run in high school. The class helped shatter school records like most wins in a season (11) and most wins in a four-year period (38). Last year, they led the Indians to the first playoff win in school history — and they added three more playoff wins on top of that, including two this season.

Saturday — their last game together, win or lose — they will try to lead Lenape to its first-ever sectional championship.

And if that doesn't sound enough like a storybook — Lajoie compared it to Friday Night Lights — Rancocas Valley (10-1) is the only team to beat Lenape (10-1) this season.

The Indians lost, 10-7, to the Red Devils on Oct. 6, adding a layer of redemption into the game.

But, when asked what he thinks his team should do differently this time around, Lajoie, with history on his side, answered confidently:

"Nothing, we don't need to do anything differently," he said. "We need to go out there and do what we've always done."

At 5-foot-8 Lajoie is a bit short in stature for star quarterback on such a high-level team.

"But, believe it or not," he said, "I was actually one of the biggest kids on the team when we first started playing together 12 years ago."

Many of those kids who ultimately outgrew Lajoie are stars now — elite athletes, including running back JoJo Kellum and wide receiver Jake Topolski.

Part of the reason Lajoie is so effective is because his game was literally molded to fit the players around him — it's 12 years in the making.

Lajoie — who has thrown for 1,175 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 582 yards and 9 touchdowns this year — is an intelligent dual-threat quarterback whose decision-making skills and crafty athleticism are a perfect complement to the team around him.

When he talks about he and his teammates as if they're a package deal, he means it. It's all he's ever known.

"There are times when a play breaks down, and I just know, instinctively, where my teammates are going to be," said Lajoie, who is also a star lacrosse player, and will play the sport in college. "We know how each other think, and we know how each other play."

That same sort of innate chemistry is evident between the players and their coach.

Beyond the raw numbers associated with their success, this year's senior class will leave a legacy of helping to turn the tide for a fledgling program.

Coach Tim McAneney came to Lenape seven years ago hoping to build a culture that could lead to sustained success. With players such as Lajoie, he's managed to implement that blueprint.

"It became a symbiotic relationship," McAneney said. "I was fortunate that they wanted to stay together and when they got here, they bought into what we did and what we were trying to do."

McAneney said that in the days leading up to Saturday's game, the bigger picture has been in the background. The players appear focused on the task at hand. But, on Thursday night, Lajoie allowed himself a bit of reflection.

"On Saturday, I'll strap it up with them one more time. It's, obviously, really bittersweet, but we have a chance for a storybook ending," he said. "It's your best friends, getting to go out there one more time with everything on the line.

"We're so proud of everything we've accomplished. But we want that one more step."