Derek Lomax adapted to change to help the St. Joseph High School football team get back to a familiar spot this season.
The 6-foot-3, 266-pound Lomax started at center as a sophomore and junior for St. Joe teams that went 22-1 and won two state titles.
Lomax looked to his left and right and saw the same faces on nearly every play during those two seasons.
But this season, Lomax was the lone returning lineman.
“It was strange,” Lomax said. “In years past, there were kids I could look up to as leaders. Now, kids were looking at me in that position. It was strange. Eventually, we all settled into our roles, and it turned out pretty well.”
Lomax and the rest of St. Joe's young offensive line are a prominent reason why the second-seeded Wildcats (9-2) will play for their seventh straight state title when they meet fourth-seeded Hudson Catholic (10-1) in the Non-Public II final 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Rowan University.
New faces weren't the only change Lomax had to master this season. He also changed positions, moving from center to left tackle.
“We had to make him the mainstay of our ground game,” St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. “We’re trying to run behind him. He has such a great work ethic. He’s so intelligent on and off the field. He knows what everybody is supposed to be doing.”
Lomax easily made the transition to the new position. At center, he used his strength to muscle defensive tackles out of the way. At left tackle, he finds often finds himself on the edge, blocking a cornerback or linebacker.
“You’re out in space more and versing different types of kids at left tackle,” Lomax said. “There’s a learning curve, but I like it now.”
As the left tackle, Lomax also protects the quarterback’s blind spot.
“If you’re going to pass the ball, and you don’t have a solid left tackle,” Lomax said, “you’re going to get people hurt.”
Lomax also embraced his role as one of St. Joe’s leaders.
“When things got tough, I feel like the other linemen looked to me,” Lomax said. “Many of them had never been in (tough) situations. I tried to guide them through it.”
It took some time for the Wildcats’ young offensive line to mature, however. St. Joe lost its opener to St. Augustine Prep 33-14. The Wildcats won three in a row but then lost to 29-0 to Mount St. Joseph Academy in Baltimore on Oct. 10.
But St. Joe has won six straight since that loss. The Wildcats have scored at least 35 points in five of those games. St. Joe finished the season averaging 313 rushing yards per game.
“We (the offensive line) wanted to become one cohesive unit,” Lomax said. “They wanted to get better and better each week, and I feel like we really have. I attribute that to (the younger players) being hard workers and us working at our craft.”
Lomax lives in Washington Township, where his football career began in youth leagues.
“My Dad (Greg) played in high school (Sterling) and college (Juniata) and when I was 5 years old he said, ‘Want to go play football and hit some kids?’ ” Lomax said. “I said, ‘Why not?’ ”
Because he was so big, Lomax always competed against older players.
“There were times I took my lumps,” he said. “It was tough, but I feel it kind of turned me into the player I am now.”
Army has offered him a chance to play college football. Several other colleges, including Lehigh, are recruiting him. But right now Lomax is focused on ending his St. Joe career the way it began — with a state championship.
“All of us seniors would see our careers come full circle,” Lomax said. “I hope we’re (continuing) to build the St. Joe tradition and increasing the opportunities for future classes.”