By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Certain jersey numbers have meaning in sports. The No. 10 typically is designated for the star player on international soccer teams. There is no shortage of great quarterbacks who wore No. 12 during their careers. The No. 34 is associated with great running backs like Bo Jackson, Earl Campbell and Walter Payton.
At Mainland Regional High, the No. 55 is starting to become synonymous with all-out beasts on defense. A couple of years ago it was Brayden Pohlman who terrorized opponents as a linebacker and helped lead the Mustangs to a 9-1 record and a West Jersey Football League Independence Division championship.
The torch was passed to Paul Lombardo, and he kept that flame burning bright the past three years as an offensive and defensive lineman. He played left tackle, and did a great job helping to pave the way for record-setting running back Ja’Briel Mace, but on defense is where Lombardo really earned his varsity letters. He was the key cog in a unit that posted four shutouts and led Mainland to a 10-2 record, another division championship, and the Mustangs’ first sectional title since 2008. Mainland was three minutes away from a berth in the state championship game before a miraculous comeback drive by Millville ended an otherwise spectacular season for the green-and-white.
“He’s one of our team leaders and was a team captain this year. He was right in the mix right away, from the beginning of the season when we talked about team captains,” Mainland coach Chuck Smith said. “He’s done well on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. He’s very fast in pursuit and makes a lot of plays away from his position because he has a motor that just doesn’t stop. He’s always in pursuit. He doesn’t take any plays off. There have been quite a few plays that he’s made down the field. He might be 10 or 15 yards down the field making a play.”
“Freshman year, we were just watching the seniors and they had a really successful year. After all of them graduated we had a couple of rough years, but we were looking forward to this year,” said Lombardo, who also wrestles and plays lacrosse. “At the start of the season we were so excited. (Assistant coach Tim) Watson came over (from Cedar Creek) and he really brought us together with a mindset development, and coach Smith, through his leadership program, brought us together, too, and really emphasized this year and the impact we could have.”
After Pohlman graduated, the Mainland program endured a couple of lean seasons as young players such as Lombardo began to cut their teeth on the varsity level. The Stangs went just 2-4 during the covid-shortened 2020 season, then posted a 4-6 record in 2021. And heading into this year it looked as though the Stangs might be in for a rough ride again as star quarterback Marlon Leslie Jr. transferred back to Pleasantville before the season. But with the leadership of seniors like Mace, Lombardo, Joe Sheeran, Nate Wagner, Nick Timek and others, freshman quarterback John Franchini was brought along and after an early loss to Ocean City the offense started clicking. Mainland scored more than 100 points in the next two games — a 49-0 win over Oakcrest and a 56-26 victory over Atlantic City, both state playoff teams — and things rolled from there. The Lombardo-led defense didn’t give up more than 14 points per game for the next five weeks, all Stangs wins.
“A lot of our guys have played for a while here. They went through the down seasons. They had to get thrown into the frying pan way before they should have, in all reality, but that’s just the way it was. And now they are benefitting from that experience,” Smith said.
“We were really confident coming into this season, even with the quarterback situation. But we believed (in John) and that brought us closer as a team. Our offense looked really good, and our defense was getting better every game. We could really rely on both sides of the ball,” Lombardo said. “(Ocean City) is our biggest rival and we always want to beat them, but we had to look at that game and take the best from it. It brought us even more focus and more determined to have the best season we could have. Each game our confidence grew and we were rolling. We felt like we were unstoppable.”
So, where did Paul Lombardo come from and why did seemingly nobody know who he was prior to his senior season? As coach Smith said, he’s just a guy who grinded throughout his high school career, and with getting older came getting bigger and stronger, and also more mature.
“I think it was part of the maturity process and understanding his role better. Coach (Antoine) Lewis does a great job with our defensive line, and he’s one of those guys day in and day out with coach Lewis. They take a lot of pride in their performance. When we have film breakdown, they all sit around coach Lewis and they talk about every single play. And I think, also, there was a mindset difference this year with our defense. We knew if we were going to be better — yeah, we knew we had some dudes (on offense) — but we knew we had to be better defensively first. Defense always dictates how the offense will do, and defense was our emphasis in the offseason. They really turned the switch on, and Lombardo is one of the biggest reasons why,” Smith said. “He’s a true leader and a captain out there. He really leads by example, and that’s big because we have a lot of young kids in the program. The reason Paul wears No. 55 is because of Brayden Pohlman, who was a senior when he was a freshman and he idolized the way Braydon played. As soon as that number became available, he asked if he could wear No. 55 because that’s how much he thought of Brayden Pohlman. Now, somebody next year will want to wear No. 55 because of the way Paul Lombardo played.”
“My role was just showing work ethic. I always prided myself on trying to out-work everyone. When you take that into practice it makes you grow as a team, when you’re trying to get a little bit better every day,” Lombardo said. “We’re very happy with (winning a sectional title). We were really trying to get that for coach Smith. We know how proud he is of us, and that was the best feeling for us.”
What Smith said he loved most about coaching Lombardo was the attitude the senior captain brought to the field every day.
“He’s always positive and has that positive energy all the time,” he said. “And a lot of these kids are, when you see them in the hallways they are always upbeat. Paul always has a positive way of thinking and he exudes energy all the time.”
Lombardo said he’s not sure what the future will hold for him and whether or not he has played his last down of football. If so, he’s got plenty of memories to carry with him wherever he goes.
“My teammates and I, we were with each other on the practice field, day in and day out hanging with each other and that’s really what I take away from this year — my teammates and my coaches and how we are really more of a family than a program,” Lombardo said. “My biggest takeaway is the relationships I’ve built throughout the years with my teammates and coaches. Those will last a lifetime. And the impact the coaches have had on myself, just in everyday life and imparting wisdom that I can take with me throughout my life and apply to all aspects of my life.”
And all the headlines and post-game interviews from South Jersey media? That was just icing on the cake to a tremendous senior season.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Lombardo said. “I was always just trying to be the best version of myself and have a valuable part on this team. But that was cool.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays