Nov. 19—Naquil Betrand entered the pandemic as a sports car and came out a monster truck.

Betrand, now a 6-foot-6, 325-pound senior offensive lineman at Northeast High School, didn't just put on weight. It's as if he added another person to his frame.

He had been just a 6-2, 160-pound freshman receiver at Imhotep Charter. When he arrived at West Catholic as a sophomore, however, wide eyes greeted Betrand's new body.

"'Quil, what happened, bro? Who did you eat?!" Betrand recalls his best friend asking.

COVID-19, quesadillas, cheesesteaks, and cheese fries happened, he says.

On Saturday, Betrand, who committed to Texas A&M in August, will lead the Vikings against Catholic League juggernaut St. Joseph's Prep for the District 12 Class 6A championship.

The Hawks seek their seventh straight PIAA championship game after losing last year's finale, 35-17, against Mount Lebanon. Saturday marks the sixth consecutive time Northeast and the Prep will play for the city title. Northeast (8-2, 3-1), the Class 6A Public League champion, has yet to win, a fact Betrand hopes to change.

"To be the best, you have to beat the best," Betrand said Tuesday before practice. "And to beat the best, you have to beat the Prep."

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The Hawks' only loss this season came against Florida's St. Thomas Aquinas, 48-37, in the season opener. Last week, the Prep (8-1, 5-0) claimed its seventh consecutive Catholic League crown, 21-13, against La Salle College High School.

In PCL play this season, the Hawks' defense, led by senior linebacker Josiah Trotter, a West Virginia commit, has only allowed about eight points per game.

That likely means much will be asked of Betrand, who clears paths for junior standout Kahmir Prescott, an all-purpose weapon the Vikings believe is the best all-around player in Philadelphia.

"[Prescott] doesn't even understand that he's just at the tip of the iceberg right now," Northeast coach Eric Clark said. "Sometimes we have to tell him that he's the best player on the field."

Prescott, a 6-1, 190-pound running back, receiver, and defensive back, has scholarship offers from Penn State, West Virginia, the Pittsburgh, and Boston College, among others.

His confidence has grown. His emotional maturity has also, Prescott says. The first-quarter touchdown he gave up to Prep receiver David Washington in last year's 41-6 loss still irritates him. The reason he gave it up, however, motivates him.

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"I feel like I could've made a play on the ball," Prescott said, "but I feel like in the heat of the moment it was too big for me and I folded. I gave up a play, and that still sticks with me."

Prescott says he's learned to clear his mind before games and visualize his performance.

"I think last year, I was too focused on who they were," he said. "I was focused on their name or how big their name was, so it got to me. This year I won't let it get to me. I'm just going to play my game."

Running behind Betrand's size-15 shoes could help.

In addition to his size, Clark, now in his third season as the head Viking in charge, also marvels at Betrand's athleticism.

In his smaller days, Betrand played guard in basketball. Former Roman Catholic basketball player Allen Betrand, now a senior guard at Rider University, is Betrand's cousin.

Clark says, Betrand has largely retained the speed and athleticism he once had as a basketball player.

"He went into the pandemic a two-door coupe and came out a big-body Benz truck," Clark said, laughing.

Later, he added: "He's a natural dog. He finishes blocks. His desire to win is outrageous. He wants to do the extra things. He wants to be great."

Northeast's Naquil Betrand was 'a late bloomer' as an offensive tackle and is now a coveted recruit

That wasn't always the case. When the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, Betrand, then a freshman at Imhotep, says he retreated to his room.

He played a lot of PlayStation, watched a lot of television and movies, and ate, a lot.

"Cereal, Doritos, powdered donuts, chicken quesadillas, chicken fingers, cheese fries, cheesesteaks, everything, man," Betrand said, laughing. "I was eating good."

He added: "We had nothing else to do. The first four months of COVID there was no going outside. You had to stay in the house. My grandma would order food online and they would bring it to the house. I would just eat, play games, watch TV, and just chill."

When he arrived at West Catholic as a sophomore, Betrand says he weighed about 270. That's also about the time he checked the NFL's highest-paid positions and saw that offensive linemen were just behind quarterbacks.

"COVID really saved me," Betrand said. "It helped me come to the realization of what I want to do in life, what I want to be in life. I always loved football, but it had gotten to the point where I was like, 'I'm probably just going to be stuck at receiver ...'"

After the weight gain, he eventually tried playing defensive line at West Catholic. It was only after a pivotal moment as a junior at Northeast, however, that Betrand found his calling.

"It was my first-ever pancake," he said, pausing briefly, perhaps unsure if the subject change had been clear.

"Not the food pancake," he added quickly with laughter. "That solidified it for me. It clicked in my head like, 'Oh yeah, I have a chance to play this for a long time.'"

For the uninitiated, a pancake in football is when an offensive player blocks a defender flat on his back.

"It was an adrenaline rush," he said. "I never felt that before. Once it happened, I just wanted to keep doing it over and over."

Blocks won't come easy Saturday, which will be the first time Betrand faces the Prep. Transfer rules meant he wasn't eligible to play in last season's city finale.

If things get difficult, though, Betrand says he thinks about his family, especially his mother, Naja, whom he says had a heart attack and died in her sleep when he was 11. She was 34.

He has her face tattooed on his chest across from angel wings.

"It was really hard," he said of his mother's death. "My mom was my backbone. She did everything for me, getting me to practices, getting me ready for school, preparing me to become a young man. She also still helps me stay focused, take care of my two younger brothers, help my grandmother a lot, and just try to be the best player and best big brother I can possibly be."

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