Gloucester head coach Rob Bryan, currently in his fourth year at the helm of the Lions football team, is in the midst of a breakthrough season after an undefeated regular season granted the squad a first round home-playoff game in the Central Jersey Group I NJSIAA Tournament.
The Lions won that game against New Egypt, 21-14, and registered their first playoff win since 2014, largely due to the efforts of senior running back Steve Burkhardt, whose 26 carries netted 253 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The stat line was nothing new for Burkhardt in his senior year: Through his team’s first eight games, he ranks first in both rushing yards (1,729) and rushing touchdowns (27) in the state so far this season.
Burkhardt has been a special player on the roster for Gloucester since first taking the field four years ago, originally as a wide receiver. But Bryan still remembers the moment he and his coaching staff realized just how special Burkhardt could be.
“Very early in his sophomore season, we were having trouble running the ball, but he was a kid that we knew needed to touch the ball,” Bryan said. “So we had him make the transition from receiver to running back, and he did well starting out that season … But we traveled down to Wildwood during the middle of the season that year [for a game the Lions won 55-0], and we ran an isolation play up the middle that, when Steve cut it out and went up the sideline, it was a gear I’d never seen him hit before that play.
“It was at that point that I knew we had something real special in him,” the coach added.
After great sophomore and junior seasons for Burkhardt personally — he rushed for more than 1,000 yards his second year, with nine rushing touchdowns before netting 940 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in last year’s COVID-shortened season — the senior is no doubt giving his all in his last season with the Lions.
After a long off-season of hitting the weight room and training for his last go around with the Lions, Burkhardt entered the season with one individual goal in mind, one he has a chance to now reach as he enters the team’s semifinal round playoff game at Paulsboro. He’s also aiming for the chance to pull off what would only be the program’s second undefeated season in history.
“I only really had one personal goal coming into the season which I’m still trying to get to, and that was to rush for 2,000 yards,” he said. “That was kind of my only personal goal. My only team goal was just to not lose, simple as that. We’ve been able to do that so far, and I want us to keep going and bring home a championship this season.”
Since Bryan took over as head coach, Gloucester football has undergone a transformation, evidenced by a steadily improving record over the past four years. After posting a 3-7 record in Bryan’s first year, Gloucester went 5-6 during the 2019-’20 season and 5-2 last year.
Now, with an 8-0 record, the buy-in among players has helped reinstill a winning culture to Bryan’s alma mater.
“Just seeing everyone show up to all those spring practices, summer workouts, everyone buying in throughout the early parts of the season, it’s not just me that is doing this,” Burkhardt said. “Everyone coming together has made this possible.”
Senior Brandyn Shepherd, this year’s starting right tackle for the Lions, put in a massive amount of work this offseason to prepare for his last year with Gloucester. Having originally played at tight end and center earlier in his career, Shepherd gained nearly 50 pounds to prepare for being one of five offensive linemen who make plays possible at the line of scrimmage.
“He (Burkhardt) has really put a lot of faith in us, trusting us to do our jobs and make holes for him to be able to get the yards that he does and score,” Shepherd said. “We really came together as an offensive line early in the year. We’ve had some guys step up and take charge and it’s been history ever since.”
From left tackle to right tackle, the combination of Kevin Mateo, Mason Jankowski, Justice Dolson, Tyler Willis and Shepherd has played a large part in the success of both Burkhardt and the team as a whole.
“I love my offensive line and they’re all great,” Burkhardt said. “They’ve been so big in making all of this possible. With [Shepherd] specifically, he’s worked so hard over the past year, with him and I working out together every day, getting closer and realizing that this is it for us. He deserves a lot more recognition that he gets, much like everyone else on that line.”