No longer an underdog

By CASEY OLSON, The Mirror

Justin Southern relishes the role of the underdog.

The term, defined as a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest, is really what drives the senior quarterback/linebacker at Federal Way High School.

At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Southern isn’t going to make college football coaches drool when they see him on the field. He’s definitely never going to be the biggest, fastest or strongest kid on the field.

But anyone who saw Southern lead Federal Way to its first South Puget Sound League title since 1976 could see that he was the definition of a football player. He just flat-out understands the game.

“The deal with Justin is that he likes to prove people wrong,” Federal Way head coach John Meagher said. “He has always been the underdog. I know he really enjoyed opening the eyes of the SPSL this season. And he opened a lot of eyes.”

During his first full season as Federal Way’s starting quarterback, Southern led the Eagles to an 8-1 regular-season record and was named the Co-Offensive Back of the Year with University of Washington-signee Demitrius Bronson of Kentwood. Southern can now add one more honor to his resume — The Mirror’s 2007 Player of the Year.

Southern completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,919 yards in 10 games. He threw for 16 touchdowns, ran for five more and also caught a touchdown pass on a throwback from Eagles running back Andre Barrington. But the most impressive number in Southern’s stat line this season comes in the interception category. He only threw one pick in 160 pass attempts.

“Individually, that is my biggest accomplishment this season,” Southern said. “That meant that I was a good decision maker. I just took the opportunities that came to me.”

Southern’s first opportunity as the starting quarterback at Federal Way came in the fourth game of last season when he took over for senior Donny McConnaughey. Southern eventually led the Eagles to third place in the SPSL North, a berth into the postseason and also gained an immense amount of confidence entering his senior season.

“He came in this year not having to fight for a position,” Meagher said. “That allowed him to take the pressure off and go play. He’s not lacking for confidence. He is a pretty confident kid. But that’s what you want in a quarterback.”

“The biggest difference this year was that I didn’t get nervous,” Southern said. “I would have butterflies in my stomach. This year, I just stayed focused and went out there and played every day.”

Southern’s confidence also had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the Federal Way roster entering this season. And that swagger led the Eagles to the SPSL North title. Federal Way eventually was upset by Cascade in the preliminary round of the Class 4A State Tournament, 27-21. Cascade scored a touchdown on the last play of the game to end the Eagles’ season.

“We are all still in shock about that last game,” Meagher said. “But, ultimately, it was a successful year in winning the league championship. Winning obviously helped. But there were no problems and weren’t a lot of egos. Everybody got along and it was a great team atmosphere.”

“We really came together as a team,” Southern said. “We were more of a team than a couple individuals. We had that swag.”

Southern’s swag, or swagger, might have been even more evident on the defensive side of the ball. Although a bulk of the attention he received this season came on offense, he might actually be a better defensive player. He was probably the only quarterback in the area to also play the physically demanding position of outside linebacker on defense.

And he played it at a very high level.

For the second year in a row, Southern was named All-SPSL North Division as a linebacker after leading the Eagles with six sacks.

“It’s a hard decision to make about whether I like offense or defense better,” Southern said. “Defense really explains who I am as a person. I like all the contact and hitting people.”

Defense is also the most likely position Southern will end up playing at the next level, whether it’s at linebacker or safety.

“We just need to find the right place for him to play and it will, most likely, be at the Division III or DII level,” Meagher said. “The bottom line is he will be going to a four-year school and play football.”

Southern has received some interest from places like Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon.

“I want to play football in college,” Southern said. “No matter what level it is.”

Remember, Justin Southern relishes the role of the underdog.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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