Last year the Pikes Peak region watched a Cinderella story unfold at Harrison High School.
The Panthers, who had a combined three wins through their 2012 and 13 seasons, went on an 8-0 run to start the year — the best season in school history, according to coach Al Melo.
Now, the Harrison football program is primed for another historic run with its quarterback, Orlando Westbrook at the helm, who used his offseason to become bigger, stronger, faster — and people are taking notice.
Westbrook, a senior, was already a star for the Panthers in 2017, but an offseason of committing to the gym, game study and lessons from professional quarterback coaches has put him in a position to become one of the top dual threats in the state.
“He works hard and he’s humble,” Melo said. “He takes his weight training serious, he takes his schoolwork serious and he takes his football serious.
“Those kinds of kids and those kind of quarterbacks come around once in a lifetime, and we’ve got ours right now.”
Last year Westbrook threw for 1,848 yards with a .648 completion percentage and had 511 rushing yards. But now, Westbrook has training from Jenkins Elite, a football training program, which Westbrook called a "godsend."
“The game comes quicker now. Last year I would get the ball and try to get a good play, but this year I can read pre-snap and take the defense they give me instead of trying to just throw it down the field,” Westbrook said. “They help me with my footwork and things but their main focus is trying to teach you to think about the game from a different standpoint than you did before.”
Westbrook also put on 13 pounds in the offseason, motivated by his aspirations of playing at the college level.
“I went to the gym with more aggression than the year before,” Westbrook said. “I came out trying to prove a point, trying to show college teams that I would be a good quarterback to take a chance on.”
“I tell the kids all the time, I’m sure glad he’s on our team and we’re not playing against him,” Melo said. “He’s a very cerebral quarterback, he studies the game and he’s a great athlete. He’s going to make some schools who maybe overlooked him think twice about that choice because he’s going to be a heckuva football player at the next level too."
But now four weeks into the regular season, Westbrook says he’s not sure what colleges are on his tail thanks to a deal he made with his dad, Orlando Westbrook II, to focus on his season instead of the recruitment process.
“During the year my dad deals with my recruiting so I can stay focused,” Westbrook said.
“There are schools interested but he doesn’t want to tell me the full scope because he doesn’t want me to get relaxed.”
Through their first three games, Westbrook has led the Panthers to another undefeated start with 634 passing yards and 234 rushing. He is averaging 289 total yards per game and has a .667 completion percentage — ranked third in the state among quarterbacks with 50 or more completions. He has five passing touchdowns and has run for four more.
But he doesn’t do it alone.
Westbrook’s former rival and childhood friend Aumiere Shedrick is one of his top playmakers with 190 rushing yards and 105 receiving yards through the first three games.
In rec league Westbrook and Shedrick were on rival teams, but since third grade the two have clicked on the field.
“When we teamed up it just felt right,” Westbrook said. “We’re so close that during games we know what each other is thinking before we speak. We’ve done this for so long now it’s just part of who we are.”
The Panthers are slated to battle Pueblo Central on Friday in a battle of unbeatens, but Westbrook said although his team is committed to looking at the season as one game at a time, he believes they are mentally prepared for another undefeated run.
“This year feels different,” Westbrook said. “Last year (our run) kind of overwhelmed the team, we weren’t prepared for it, but this year, though, we are ready.”
Melo, on the other hand, says it’s cliche, but preparing for each week is the best way to prepare for a successful run.
“I’m no so concerned about a big run, we just know we have a good Pueblo Central team coming on Friday and we have to be at our best,” Melo said. “It’s going to be a great test on Friday. Nico Martin and his brother (Brandon) are really good and they have a good sophomore quarterback, and they’re as athletic as can be.”