Kai Leibfried looks like a middle linebacker.
He plays like a middle linebacker.
It just took him a while to become a middle linebacker.
“Sophomore year and junior year, I played defensive end,” Leibfried said. “I kind of got used to playing there.”
At 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, the Cinnaminson senior fits the mold the prototypical middle linebacker: He’s a burly athlete with a low center of gravity.
His playing style is ideal for one of the sport’s classic positions as well, according to Cinnaminson coach Mario Patrizi.
“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s smart, and he’s tough,” Patrizi said in succinct summation of his team’s defensive captain.
But this season has been a study in adjustments for Leibfried and the Pirates. They were 1-2 after three games, surrendering 56 points.
Since then, Cinnaminson has won five in a row, allowing a total of just 14 points, to storm into the South Jersey Group 2 tournament as a No. 7 seed to watch.
Leibfried will lead Cinnaminson (6-2) into Friday’s playoff opener at second-seeded Camden (7-1) at 6 p.m. in Farnham Park.
“We go as he goes,” Patrizi said. “The kids look to him. He’ll go in there ready to play, and I think our kids will follow that.”
Patrizi said the team’s slow start was the product of inexperience, plus a tough early schedule that included playoff teams Willingboro, Sterling, and Holy Cross in the first three weeks.
Leibfried said he needed to get used to playing middle linebacker after two seasons on one side of the defensive line.
“I played ‘backer’ as a freshman, but it’s way different on the varsity,” Leibfried said. “I needed to get used to it again. But once I got more comfortable, and everybody got used to playing with each other, we got rolling.”
Leibfried said the team’s seniors, many of whom have been playing together since their days as 8-year-olds in the town’s youth program, rallied the troops after a 22-12 loss to Holy Cross on Sept. 22 dropped the Pirates’ record below the .500 mark.
“We felt like 100 percent we were a playoff team,” Leibfried said. “But after the Holy Cross loss, we knew we couldn’t afford any more letdowns. We knew we had to win out, and we’ve broken off five wins in a row.”
Although Cinnaminson has gotten strong work from junior running back Rashad Raymond and sophomore quarterback Shawn Ruffin, the defense has been the key to the team’s surge into the postseason field. Cinnaminson won three games in a row by shutout, then stunned perennial South Jersey Group 2 power West Deptford by 21-7 on Oct. 27. The loss snapped West Deptford’s 18-game winning streak.
Patrizi said Leibfried, who has 71 tackles, four sacks, and three forced fumbles, has led the way for the Pirates defense.
“He’s really one of the best we’ve ever had,” said Patrizi, the program’s 12th-year coach.
Leibfried plans to attend Division III McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., play football for the Green Terror and major in physical therapy.
Leibfried said it’s “starting to hit home” that he’s playing his final games for Cinnaminson and with some athletes who have been at his side on the football field for more than a decade.
But Leibfried said the Pirates, who have lost in the first round in four of the last five seasons, have unfinished business.
“We know people think of Cinnaminson as a good team,” Leibfried said. “We’ve got to get over that hump and make ourselves a great team.”
Game at a glance
Cinnaminson (6-2) at Camden (7-1) in first round of South Jersey Group 2 tournament, Friday at 6 p.m.
Seeds: Cinnaminson is the No. 7 seed and Camden is No. 2.
Next: The winner will meet the winner of Friday night’s game between third-seeded Sterling and sixth-seeded Haddonfield.
History: This is the first football game between Cinnaminson and Camden.
Camden players to watch: Senior QB Premire Wilson (68-for-117 passing for 960 yards and 9 TDs; 68 carries, 379 yards, 2 TDs); senior RB Najyere Edwards (128 carries, 941 yards, 8 TDs); senior DE Eli Sloan-El (56 tackles, 14 sacks); junior DL Tidiane Bamba (46 tackels, 8 sacks).
Cinnaminson players to watch: Sophomore QB Shawn Ruffin (27-for-45 passing, 505 yards, 9 TDs); junior RB Rashad Raymond (109 carries, 931 yards, 11 TDs).
Key to the game: Can Cinnaminson’s defense, which has allowed just 14 points in the last five games, contain an explosive Camden offense led by Wilson, Edwards and freshman WR Corey Palmer?
Pick: Camden, 19-14.