A football player’s junior season is huge, especially for a quarterback. That’s when a signal-caller wants to prove not only that he belongs on the varsity level, but that he can be the type of prospect that college coaches take an interest in.

Louie Barrios’ junior season didn’t go anything like what he had planned back in August of 2018. Cedar Creek limped to a 4-5 record, losing four of its final six games, and the season ended with a 57-0 drubbing at the hands of Pleasantville in the opening round of the state playoffs. Barrios had some tough questions to ask himself. Was he really the right guy to lead this football program back to prominence? Was he doing enough to be the leader people inside and outside of the program expected him to be? Was he as good as he thought back when he was leading the Egg Harbor City Crusaders youth program to championships?

A loss like that can either crush a young football player or motivate him. Clearly, it motivated Barrios.

Glory Days Magazine’s Football MVP came out this fall and put together one of the best seasons a South Jersey quarterback has ever had, throwing for nearly 2,700 yards and 34 touchdowns while cutting down his turnovers and leading the Pirates to the Central Jersey Group 2 championship, a 10-3 record, and a spot in the Central/South Regional Championship. He also rushed for nearly 700 yards and 12 more scores. Cedar Creek’s theme this year was “The Greatness Getback” and Barrios fulfilled all the promise he had shown as a gifted athlete when he arrived on campus four years ago.

“It all started in the summer, especially after that Pleasantville game in the first round (of the 2018 playoffs). We all established a mission in the weight room and all the drills we did, we did those with intention. When coach Watson came up with ‘The Greatness Getback’ it hit home on everything we were trying to work for. We had a great group of seniors this year with me, Malachi (Melton), Manny (Reid) — all of us — and we all started with watching what we did wrong last year as juniors so we could help the team more. We knew we didn’t want to have any regrets this year and I think we did what we had to do,” Barrios said. “I think it was just having a better relationship with coaches and understanding the game more. My sophomore year wasn’t that bad but my junior year wasn’t anything I expected at all, so I kind of restarted a lot of things. I talked to different coaches, went to a different trainer, kind of just got back to the basics. Me and coach Watson talked all the time and I told him after my junior season that I didn’t want to leave Cedar Creek not being the best I could be. We all just started on a mission. He understood where I was coming from and he wanted the best for me.”

Pirates coach Tim Watson said he always knew Barrios had this kind of potential, but there were times during his career when Barrios tried to do too much. Watson said he had to get Barrios to believe in trusting his instincts and just be the player he had always been, not try to be something he wasn’t.

“We knew Louie was going to be special when we got him as a freshman. He fought his way into a starting role as a sophomore, and he did have a little bit of a letdown his junior year. I think he expected to do a little better. But we made a few adjustments with the staff and brought on some new people, and I think that was good for his spirits. I’m a big believer in that if your heart is right, your game is going to be right, and I think his heart and mind were in a good place. We put him in position to make plays and take advantage of our strengths, and he was the perfect guy to make it happen,” Watson said. “(Taking what the defenses gave him) was a big adjustment for him. Another one was trusting his legs. He was so good at extending plays that for a little while in the beginning of this season he wasn’t content with running it, he wanted to try to extend the play and make some magic with his arm. But as the season wore on, we were like, ‘Louie, with the way you run the ball, you can pick up a first down a lot easier (by running) and if you get to the second level there’s a pretty good chance you can make some guys miss and you might have a chance to score.’ So (this year) he was a lot smarter and more mature with his decision making on certain downs, and he started to really develop the understanding of when to just take off and run and put the opposing defense in a bind.”

Barrios said he spent the offseason studying high level college quarterbacks to see how they reacted in certain situations, and having a great 7-on-7 season helped boost his confidence as well.

“It just came with experience and watching film. This offseason I watched a lot of college quarterback highlights. I tried to watch what they see, understand situations like down and distance, and what kind of defense I’m going up against. And I got a lot of reps in playing 7-on-7,” he said. “As a team, after that Camden game when we came back from being down by 28 points — even though we ended up losing, 42-41, on a bad snap — that showed us who we were as players. We all knew there was no quit in us and that loss kind of jump-started a lot of things for us.”

That bad snap was made by Tyler Hendrickson, and he was distraught about costing the Pirates the game. So much so that he went out and practiced snapping 100 times a day for the next two weeks. Part of being the quarterback of a high school football team is showing leadership, and Barrios made it clear to Hendrickson that the Pirates won as a team, and lost as a team.

“He took that hard and apologized to all of us, but I told him we shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place,” Barrios said. “It wasn’t all on that snap and he knows we all support him. We’re a team and we can’t put the blame on one person.”

Especially at a school with the proud football tradition of Cedar Creek, being the quarterback is more than just throwing touchdown passes. You have to speak to the media after games, you have to understand that young boys look up to you and idolize you. You have to carry yourself a certain way, and Barrios really embraced that role as the “face of the franchise” during his senior year.

“Coach Watson does a great job with us throughout our four years and I realized a lot by picking up on little things. If I was in the weight room and playing around a little bit I realized I had to get down to business. I realized I had a lot of guys looking at me and what I do, and I have to be on my game if we’re going to do what I want us to do,” Barrios said. “Everybody always says everyone watches the quarterback and I didn’t really realize that until that first varsity snap. I realized that a lot of things were on my shoulders and I had to hold myself up the best I could.”

“He’s been somebody who was a young Creek boy in the making, him and Malachi. They won championships together with the Crusaders and came up together, looking up to those older guys. And this year he really took ownership of what his role was in terms of the community. It was awesome to see,” Watson said. “He’s a special leader and we’re glad he was able to play the type of football he was capable of playing. That’s the biggest thing — all these guys, we talked about the idea of greatness, and these guys lived out what we saw for them and what we thought they could accomplish, which doesn’t happen all the time.”

Barrios said he’s still hoping to catch the eyes of college recruiters, and no doubt the stats he put up with open up some eyes. But no matter what happens after he graduates in June, Barrios will always have a championship season to look back on, years from now.

“This year was probably my favorite year playing football ever, just the team we had, the vibe we had and the success. It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Me and Malachi have been playing together since we’ve been 5 years old, so to experience a championship — we won back in youth league, but it’s even crazier now to think about how we were at the bottom last year and this year we finished on top.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

OTHER FOOTBALL MVP CANDIDATES:

Patrick Smith, Holy Spirit, RB/KR: Holy Spirit looked to be a pretty good football team heading into this year, but the Spartans got profoundly better when Smith arrived this summer. One of the most dynamic athletes in the state, Smith put on a show week after week in both the running and kick return games, and helped lead Holy Spirit to a state championship.

Chris Armstrong, Ocean City, OL: Armstrong became the leader of a hungry group of Red Raiders who were determined to win a South Jersey Group 4 championship, and they nearly pulled it off, making it to the title game before falling to Shawnee.

Stephen Moore Jr., EHT, OL/DL: Moore played well on both sides of the ball and, more importantly, helped boost the confidence of a young team that shook off a slow start to finish out the year with a .500 mark.

Brayden Pohlman, Mainland Regional, OL/DL: In one of the most inspiring stories of the season, Pohlman somehow came back from a torn ACL to play against rival Ocean City, and led his team to a victory that sealed a second straight WJFL Independence Division championship.

Joshua Kotokpo, Pleasantville, RB: He battled through ankle injuries throughout the early part of the season, but came on strong later in the year and led the Hounds to eight wins and a spot in the sectional semifinals.

Manny Reid, Cedar Creek, ATH: Reid was one of the most versatile athletes in the West Jersey Football League and made so many contributions on both sides of the ball for a team that won 10 games and a sectional title.

Chandler Bird, St. Augustine Prep, OL: Maybe the best center in South Jersey, Bird had a tremendous year and led one of the best offensive lines in the state.

Ray Weed, Absegami, QB/DB: Weed did it all for the Braves, starting at quarterback and safety, and helped lead his team to a resurgence in the second half of the season despite playing most of the year with a knee injury.

Shawn McGraw, Atlantic City, RB/DB: The junior was a difference maker on both sides of the ball and rarely came off the field for a team that was undersized and out-manned against much of its competition. He’s a big-time playmaker from the running back position but can also split out as a wide receiver.