NEWTON SQUARE, Pa. —
Modern technology has a way of blurting information not intended to be heard or read by a wider audience. On the event page of a rival school, the general term "doormats" was used frequently in describing Episcopal Academy (Newtown Square, Pa.)
It was blatant. Nor was it the first time, either. It's a term that's been tweeted, sent as text messages and spread throughout Philadelphia's prestigious Inter-Academic League since the beginning of this season when it came to describing the Churchmen.
They laugh now.
The 2012 Episcopal Academy football team could. In the three previous years, the Churchmen were a combined 7-23 overall and 1-14 in the Inter-Ac. They were
the mud-stained doormats of the league. Everyone loves an underdog story, but the Churchmen were under the underdog.
What's happened this season is a dramatic transformation. The Churchmen are one of the best turnaround stories in not only Pennsylvania but in the country. They finished the regular season 10-0 and 5-0 in the Inter-Ac, completing their their first outright league title since 1982.
The last time they won a league crown was before Churchmen coach Todd Fairlie, the architect of this makeover, was born.
Yes, the Churchmen won more games than the previous three seasons together. They're beating teams this year that they haven't beaten in almost a decade, like traditional Phildelphia area power Malvern Prep. What's more, the Churchmen are doing it with the same core group that finished 3-7 overall last year.
They didn't just squeak by week to week. They outscored their opponents 368-35.
"I think last year was a learning experience for us," said Adam Strouss
, the Churchmen's 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior quarterback who's bound for Penn as a defensive back, but whose stock has risen considerably at quarterback. "Coach Fairlie brought a culture change to the football program. The difference this year was the off-season work and buying into the program and the attitude."
The Inter-Ac is full of high-caliber academic schools. Football at Episcopal Academy was treated as a recreational activity—like intramural soccer. Fairlie, 28, came in and instituted an off-season weight training program, speed conditioning, and demanded more of a commitment.
Fairlie's arrival was like a perfect storm. His program was embraced by hungry seniors who were tired of losing—rooted in team captains Strouss, Ian Strain
and Jack Florio
"We wanted to turn this around and coach Fairlie got everyone involved," Strouss said. "We didn't take it well at first, because we weren't used to someone that intense. Guys were ready to be this intense, we just needed a leader."
The women working the Episcopal Academy cafeteria were always on the look out for Fairlie his first few years at the school. He would routinely get told to leave the teacher's section of the cafeteria because he looked young enough to be one of the students.
"What drew me to the job was I felt I could connect to the kids," said Fairlie, who was 26 when he was hired and was already a teacher at the school. "I had an opportunity and I laid out a plan. I was excited because the year I started working there when the seniors were freshmen. I could see they wanted to win and work hard. They wanted challenges."
This team will always carry a place in Fairlie's heart. They're doing something that hasn't been done in 30 years. It's the beauty of high school sports — defying expectations.
Recently, there was an email that was passed among the alums of another rival Inter-Ac school that the Churchmen were doormats.
"That kind of stuff is expected and it's something we used as motivation in the beginning of the year, but we all laugh about it now," Fairlie said. "This is unforgettable group of guys that have something to remember for the rest of their lives."
Joe Santoliquito is a frequent MaxPreps contributor and Philadelphia-based writer. He may be reached at email@example.com