Troy Domenick looked like a strong safety as a sophomore. He was tall, thin, rangy.
He still resembles a strong safety as a senior, although he's a little taller, a little thicker, and a lot more physical in his play.
But now he's a defensive end. And he probably has been the most consistent, dependable, and productive player for one of South Jersey's top defenses.
"If you had told me he was going to be an All-South Jersey-caliber defensive end when he was a sophomore, I never would have believed it," Cherokee coach P.J. Mehigan said. "He was a strong safety."
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Domenick likely will play a key role in Friday night's South Jersey Group 5 championship game at Rowan University.
Domenick and the rest of the Cherokee defense will be charged with containing an Eastern offense that features star quarterback Tom Flacco, star wide receiver Keshawn Segers, and lots of other weapons.
"It's going to be a challenge," Domenick said. "We're looking forward to it. We can't wait."
Domenick is a good example of why Cherokee is Cherokee.
He's a Marlton kid. He grew up playing soccer, but switched to football in sixth grade. He said he dreamed of playing for the Chiefs, of wearing those orange helmets and "walking the hill" on the way to the famous bowl of a football stadium.
Cherokee is back in a South Jersey final for the 14th time because of players such as Domenick and tight end/defensive end Jake Powell and running back/defensive back Matt Stickney and several other seniors on the team.
They were freshmen when Cherokee won its second straight South Jersey Group 4 title in 2010. They took their lumps as sophomores and juniors, as the Chiefs failed to qualify for the playoffs in both seasons - a Dust Bowl-era drought by the program's high standards.
But they kept working. They got bigger, stronger, and better, and they have reaped the rewards of their efforts as seniors.
Domenick is Exhibit A.
"He buys in," Mehigan said. "He does what he needs to do. He works and works and works, and he gets results."
There's no secret. There's nothing mystical or magical about these programs that seem to appear in these big games, again and again, at this time of year.
Domenick was hurt much of last season, his first at defensive end. But he said he grew a couple of inches and gained about 15-20 pounds.
He felt stronger, more confident. Plus, he felt extra motivation as a senior in a program with such high standards.
"We wanted to get back where we were," Domenick said.
Mehigan said he never expected Domenick to be dominant. But the coaches saw something in the summer.
"We scrimmaged Hammonton and they are so physical, and he was being so physical with their run game," Mehigan said. "We were like, 'Wow.' "
It might be the most rewarding thing for a coaching staff, to see a player come through the program, improve year by year, and squeeze his senior season for all it's worth.
That has happened to a lot of kids who will be playing their final game this weekend.
That has happened to Troy Domenick and a bunch of his teammates.
"We all worked hard to make this happen," Domenick said. "We dreamed of playing in this game. We know how lucky we are to get this chance."
South Jersey Group 5 final preview
Cherokee vs. Eastern
Friday, 7 p.m. at Rowan
Previous titles: Cherokee, eight (1985, 1990, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2010 in S.J. Group 4; 1981, 1982 in S.J. Group 3); Eastern, one (2003 in S.J. Group 4).
Coaches: Cherokee, P.J. Mehigan (12th season, 104-28); Eastern, Dan Spittal (14th season, 86-60).
How Cherokee can win: Defensive ends Troy Domenick and Jake Powell must pressure but also contain Eastern QB Tom Flacco. Senior QB Trevor Osler (82-for-117 passing, 1,099 yards, 15 TDs) can spread the ball to top receivers such as Powell (24 catches, 456 yards, 5 TDs) and Matt Curry (16 catches, 164 yards, 3 TDs). RBs Matt Stickney (698 yards, 11 TDs) and Marc Woodard (654 yards, 7 TDs) can gain yards behind a sturdy offensive line led by junior tackle Dan Iannone.
How Eastern can win: Flacco can make big plays with his legs and arm. He is 182-for-299 passing for 2,714 yards and 25 TDs. He also has run for 673 yards and 12 TDs. WRs Keshawn Segers (59 catches, 1,073 yards, 10 TDs) and Cinque Hill (36, 602, 6) are big-play threats. Senior two-way lineman Mike Montemurro leads the way in the trenches.
Fast fact I: Eastern has scored 135 points in four playoff games (33.75 average) in the last two seasons.
Fast fact II: Cherokee senior Ken Ravel (52 extra points, 10 field goals) has set the South Jersey single-season record for kicking points with 82. - Phil Anastasia