BEAVERTON, Ore. -- It was evident early that Team Vapor Trail, the squad from prep football powerhouse Northwestern (Miami), was playing on a different level than the other competitors at last week's Nike 7ON Tournament.
Vapor Trail boasts a roster full of skilled players, including junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a talented wide receiver corps as targets. A solid defensive effort from Vapor Trail was all it needed to wrap up the 7ON title.
Last year's Florida Class 6A runner-up rolled to a 5-0 record and the championship courtesy of a 34-23 victory over Team Super Speed from DeSoto, Texas.
"When we got on the plane [back home], the celebration was over," cornerback Brandon Joseph said. "Even though we won a big national passing tournament, we have practice Monday."
While the tournament MVP, Bridgewater, and his receivers stole the show, what may have been overlooked was the play of Joseph and fellow Vapor Trail cornerback Alex Kelly. The diminutive duo locked on opposing receivers about as often as their offensive counterparts were open on the outside.
Joseph's serious attitude and mental approach to the game help make up for his lack of size (5-foot-8, 155 pounds).
But his size doesn't appear to be a disadvantage on the field. On Friday, Miami Northwestern played two games after receiving a quarterfinal bye. In the semifinals against Team Zoom Blade (Byrnes of Duncan, S.C.), Joseph allowed one catch in man coverage on a deep comeback route.
"Inside, Peanut Butter," a Northwestern coach shouted. "Watch that comeback Butter!" screamed another coach. "Press on him, Peanut," yet another yelled.
"Coach Keith Finney from Optimist [the local Pop Warner league] gave me that nickname," Joseph explained. "When we did drills, we were taught not just to do it just with speed, but to do it right. I felt like I always did it right. He said my technique in drills was always smooth, like peanut butter. I earned my nickname right there."
The 2007 season was a magical one for the Bulls. After winning three previous Class 6A state titles, Northwestern had a season for the ages, traveling to Dallas to take on FAB 50 No. 1 Carroll (Southlake, Texas) in a battle of the nation's top-two ranked teams before 31,896 fans at Gerald J. Ford Stadium and a national TV audience.
Northwestern won, 29-21, and went on to take home the mythical FAB 50 national title. That season, Peanut Butter started on the junior varsity, but was moved up during the season and gained valuable experience, even though his playing was limited.
The '07 Bulls featured EA SPORTS Mr. Football USA Jacory Harris at quarterback throwing to wide outs Tommy Streeter, Aldarius Johnson and Kendal Thompkins. All three joined Harris at the University of Miami.
"I got to practice against those guys," Joseph recalled. "They taught us just because we were young, we still can't get beat. I also get to stick them in the spring [at Northwestern]. They come back and help our young players, help us with our coverage. I get to go up against Aldarius and Kendal. Even Demetrius Byrd [a former LSU receiver and Miami Central High product] was out there a few times. That gives us a huge advantage. When we line up against high school seniors, it seems regular."
With a whopping 19 players graduating, the 2008 team still had high expectations, even if many in the community wrote them off as not being legitimate state title contenders. After all, how could a program replace that much talent and still perform at a high level?
"We lost 30 seniors, but we knew we had talent behind talent," said Michaelee Harris, a senior wide out who caught seven passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the 7ON championship game. "We were the underdog in all our big games last year. All season long, we had the wrong mentality; our motto was to get to state, now our motto is to win state."
Joseph also critiqued the mental make-up of last year's team. A nickel back as a junior, he said that the Bulls' mentality going into the 2008 season wasn't necessarily the problem, but they lacked the desire and focus of the 2007 team.
Northwestern returned to the 6A state title game, but allowed a 21-point lead to slip away against Seminole (Sanford, Fla.) and finished the season 12-3. Not bad by any means, but not up to Peanut Butter's standards.
"We always felt we could get there and win it, but like Coach [Billy] Rowe said, it was something that caught up to us," Joseph said. "Maybe it was hunger. I just don't know; we were good, but that hump, I guess we didn't get past that hump. This year we won't have that problem, the will has to be there."
This season, the journey to capture another state title and a possible mythical national title began at Nike's World Headquarters. Northwestern expected to win the tournament, and like Joseph predicted, he and Kelly were the best cornerbacks on the lot.
Ronnie Flores is a senior editor of ESPN RISE.