Max Sullivan likes being an underdog.
"I like when people say, 'Oh, you guys are going to lose, you guys stink,'" Sullivan said. "That motivates me. I love to hear that. I can't wait to prove them wrong."
Sullivan, a senior two-way lineman, and his Cherry Hill West teammates enter this season on a mission: to reclaim the program's good name after a difficult 2017 campaign.
Cherry Hill West coach Brian Wright believes the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Sullivan is the right guy to lead the way. A standout wrestler who went 33-3 as a junior for a team that made the South Jersey Group 4 final, Sullivan is a physically imposing athlete who sets the tone for the Lions on the field and in the locker room.
"Great leader," Wright said of Sullivan. "Anything that comes up, he's there, 'What do you need coach?' His teammates respect him. He works so hard and he cares so much about this program."
Sullivan can play, too. New defensive coordinator Rob Cormier, who spent 10 years as head coach at Bishop Eustace, rates Sullivan rates among the best defensive players he's had.
"He's been unblockable at times," Cormier said. "He might be the best defensive player in South Jersey."
Sullivan said the 2017 season was frustrating for himself and his teammates as the Lions went 1-9, losing six games by a touchdown or less. The team's lone win was Thanksgiving Eve against crosstown rival Cherry Hill East.
"I had a rough time, we all had a rough time," Sullivan said. "I was playing my heart out and losing all those games.
"But you've got to look at the positive side. We're bringing back 18 well-experienced guys who can really bring the team back to that next level, the level to beat Top 15 teams.
"We've really come together this summer, bought into Coach Wright's system, and bringing in coach Rob Cormier helped a lot because we've seen what he's done with teams and how many great teams he's had."
Cormier said this year's Cherry Hill West defense should compare favorably with some of his top defenses at Bishop Eustace, including the rock-solid 2011 squad.
Sullivan and fellow two-way lineman Dorian Davis lead the way along with battled-tested seniors such as linebackers Mike Alberto and Sal Chiaro and cornerback Carlos Gomez and junior safety John Ioannucci, among others. The Lions also could get a big boost from a couple of prominent transfers, pending their eligibility.
Sullivan believes the addition of the intense Cormier will change the mentality of the Lions' defense.
"I love the mentality that coach Rob Cormier brings," Sullivan said. "It reminds me of our wrestling coach, coach [Zach] Semar, borderline crazy. He's screaming and I love it.
"I love when coaches are hard on us. They are hard because they want us to succeed and I want to succeed just as bad as them."
Wright said Sullivan's success on the wrestling mat is a big factor in his play on the football field.
"He's physically dominant," said Wright, whose team opens Thursday night at Cinnaminson. "Just the leverage from wrestling, the hips, the wrist control. Plus, he has that never-say-die attitude. Even if he gets blocked at first, he's going to keep going and fight through it."
Sullivan said wrestling's mental demands translate to football.
"The mental toughness from wrestling separates me," Sullivan said. "I try and push guys, telling them, 'There's no reason to quit, the biggest enemy is yourself.'"
Sullivan, who has drawn recruiting interest in football from programs such as Bryant and New Hampshire, is a four-year varsity player and three-year starter. He was a regular in 2016, when the Lions went 8-2. He was a regular in 2017, when the Lions went 1-9.
In a revamped West Jersey Football League National Division that includes Cherry Hill East, Pennsauken, Seneca, Triton and Cumberland — none of which were above .500 last season — Cherry Hill West could be poised for another dramatic turnaround.
Their burly two-way lineman thinks so. He just doesn't want to hear anybody else say that.
"I like being the underdog," Sullivan said. "I come out for the team more than personally. I think it's going to happen. I think we're going to get back to where we were, win a lot of football games.
"I know this is my last year. I hope people doubt us. I love when people doubt us. But I'm not going to let anyone or anything stop me."
Tidaine Bamba, Camden senior: He made 59 tackles with eight sacks as a junior.
Dahmir Barefield, Highland senior: He was a first-team, all-conference selection as a junior.
Fadil Diggs, Woodrow Wilson junior: The dynamic pass rusher has more than 25 scholarship offers from program such as Florida, Georgia, Penn State and Tennessee.
Aaron Lewis, Williamstown junior: He registered seven sacks as a sophomore for the Braves.
Santino Morina, Paulsboro senior: He's a pure pass rusher as well as a top tight end and wrestler for the Red Raiders.
Sean Morris, St. Joseph senior: He's a sturdy run stopper in the middle of the Wildcats' defensive front.
Wisdom Quarshie, St. Joseph senior: He's a dominant two-way player recruited by Temple as a defensive lineman.
Patrick O'Hanlon, Shawnee senior: He had 73 tackles and eight sacks as a junior for the South Jersey Group 4 champions.
Anthony Reyes, Vineland senior: He's a physical two-way end for the Clan.
Isaiah Raikes, St. Augustine junior: He has scholarship offers from Baylor, Duke and Wake Forest, among others.