Notre Dame LB commit Josh Barajas fighting to keep Andrean unbeaten
HOBART — Andrean needed a timeout to stop the clock and regroup, a chance to take its first lead with only seconds left in the game at stake.
Josh Barajas needed the break to get his right hand taped. A throbbing thumb and a bloody hand weren’t going to keep Barajas from the field on the final drive in a comeback effort.
With his hand temporarily fixed, Barajas lined up at tight end for Andrean’s last play, a one-yard quarterback sneak by Jake Paliga to give the 59ers a lead. The 59ers needed all but nine seconds to take their first lead over Hobart and remain undefeated with a 21-17 victory.
After joining his teammates in jubilation on the sidelines, Barajas headed back out to the field for the final kickoff to make sure disaster was avoided. The clock expired and the pressure ended. He didn’t have much left to give. Barajas trudged through the handshake line and took a knee behind his teammates standing in a circle for the postgame message from head coach Phil Mason.
He just finished a 10-tackle performance on defense in addition to playing more than half the offensive snaps. The Notre Dame linebacker commit considers himself well-conditioned, but the Brickies challenged him. A loss would have been worse than the pain. Barajas wants another undefeated senior season to pair with last year’s Class 3-A state championship.
“It means a lot. After going undefeated last year, we're trying to keep it going,” Barajas said. “It's a goal of ours and we have to reach it."
It’s more than a personal goal for the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Barajas. Leading the 59ers to another championship as a senior captain is Barajas’ way of giving back to the school he feels he owes so much. A bright future has been built for Barajas in his second year at the school.
“I've never been at a school that's wanted me to succeed more than I do,” Barajas said.
He should know. Living in a family that moved often, Barajas estimates Andrean is the eighth different school he’s attended since first grade.
“All the faculty is on board with helping me out whether it's with schoolwork or helping me get to practice,” Barajas said. “My friends give me rides. Everyone's on board and helping me out. Andrean's been a huge help.”
Education uncertainty is long in the past for Barajas now. He locked in his verbal commitment to Notre Dame in May, a decision many in the Andrean community and his father fully support.
Finding a path
Shortly after Josh Barajas Sr. and his wife divorced, he wanted to find a way to connect with his children as a single dad. He and his three children moved away from their mother in Houston, Texas to Fort Thomas, Ky. Football became an outlet for the family during the transition.
Barajas Sr. worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. installing doors – adjusted hours to spend with his kids. After work, he often took them to a park to play football.
“We were at the park from 3 o'clock to maybe 6 or 7 o'clock just throwing the football back and forth,” Barajas Sr. said. “They loved it. Even my daughter loved it.”
He signed up Josh Jr. for organized football for a couple seasons before the family moved again to Highland, Ind. The father saw a bright future in the sport for his son, but the youngster had lower expectations. It wasn’t until his eighth grade year at Highland Middle School that Josh Jr. saw success.
“That's when I kind of broke out,” Josh Jr. said. “Everyone likes to play something they're good at. I wasn't too good in my earlier stages.”
Being recruited by Chicago football powerhouse Mount Carmel reaffirmed the promise Barajas Jr. had shown. The family decided it would make the 25-mile trek across the state line to attend school and play football. The competition in Illinois would demand more of the high school freshman.
Mount Carmel would help teach Barajas Jr. a new standard in terms of preparation and conditioning.
“Mount Carmel, as far as workouts, is incredible,” Barajas Sr. said. “They do a great job of getting the kids physically fit. They start early in the morning, they go to breakfast, they go to class and then they come back for football practice. They were flipping tires, hammering tires, wrestling against each other. They were doing all kinds of stuff there.”
But when it came to playing time, Barajas Jr. was a bit lost on the deep Mount Carmel roster. The school fields freshman and sophomore teams in addition to its varsity squad. As a sophomore in 2012, Barajas watched mostly from the sidelines as the team won a Class 8-A state championship.
With another family move, this time to Valparaiso, the Barajases reconsidered their school choice. They decided to make the switch to Andrean in Merrillville. By the end of his junior season, the transfer paid dividends.
Josh Barajas Jr. entered his junior season with little buzz from college coaches. An undefeated season and a state championship changed that. His effort in a 35-27 win over Brebeuf Jesuit in Lucas Oil Stadium warranted plenty of attention.
He made plays all over the field in tallying eight tackles, 2.5 for a loss and four pass breakups. Less than a month later he received offers from Purdue and Illinois as early Christmas presents.
He downplayed his performance in the state finals. His opinion didn’t matter to the college coaches.
“I have high expectations of myself,” Barajas Jr. said. “If I make four tackles and miss one, there goes my four tackles in my mind. I don't like to make mistakes. I missed a few tackles here and there.”
By mid-February, those missed tackles were distant memories. He had the calls and mail from dozens of college coaches to fill his time.
"Right before bed he'd have to call four or five coaches,” Barajas Sr. said. “Josh was getting tired of it. It was overwhelming. In the beginning, no one was calling. No one was sending anything.”
Looking to end his recruitment in the spring, Barajas Jr. visited Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Notre Dame. In mid-March he visited Ohio State and then Penn State. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin made a strong enough impression on Barajas Jr. to earn his verbal commitment. But his father wasn’t sold.
“I was a little upset. Notre Dame was always at the top of the list. It (going anywhere else) was never an option for me,” Barajas Sr. said. “Even growing up, I liked Oregon, and they offered Josh. I was still convinced Notre Dame was the only way to go if you're going to succeed in life. Growing up as an adult, I could see the degree would go a lot farther than anywhere else.”
The two rethought the early decision and decided Notre Dame was the right choice. Barajas Jr. flipped his commitment on May 30 and has since been fully invested in the Irish. Head coach Brian Kelly showed his appreciation earlier this month when he attended Andrean’s game against Munster.
“It was huge,” Barajas Jr. said of Kelly’s visit. “The place was electric. Everyone was excited with it being a Notre Dame type of high school. It was exciting and a lot of fun."
Barajas Jr. describes the performance of Notre Dame’s defense in its 3-0 start with similar fervor. The four-star recruit is set to play the strongside (Sam) linebacker position when he arrives in South Bend next year.
“Everyone flies around,” Barajas Jr. said. “I love the way Jaylon Smith takes control of the defense and is showing some leadership as only a sophomore. I love watching Notre Dame's defense."
He’s anxious to join the Irish but has goals left to accomplish. His 10 tackles and two tackles for a loss against Hobart were overshadowed in his mind by missed tackles and a couple of dropped passes.
“Very mediocre,” Barajas Jr. said of his performance. “I had a couple dropped balls. I had some missed tackles not bringing my feet. It's something I have to work on, but it's all correctable."
The 59ers flirted with losses in their last two games, but they escaped with four-point victories both times. Andrean will receive the best punches from opposing teams trying to end the now 20-game winning streak. The last loss came to Smith’s Bishop Luers team in 2012.
"Josh just wants to make sure he brings another championship to Andrean before he leaves,” Barajas Sr. said. “That's his main focus right now. He wants one more championship to make his name live there. Then he'll start another championship run over at Notre Dame. We don't like to lose."
Barajas Jr. needs 10 more wins to avoid that feeling for another season.