Sports

B.J. and his Band of Brothers

Barjona Ray, better known as B.J., turns emotional when he starts talking about Bremerton’s Band of Brothers.

His voice cracks and he clenches his right fist and bangs it into his left hand as he makes his point. Ray’s standing on the practice field at Bremerton High, still wearing his helmet and gloves after a midweek practice.

He’s talking about his coaches and teammates, not the World War II TV drama that’s based on the true story of an elite paratroop unit’s missions across Europe after D-Day.

“That’s my family right there,” said Ray, a senior cornerback and wide receiver, nodding toward a group of Knights headed toward the locker room. “I don’t want to let those guys down. They’ve been there for me and I want to be there for them.

“I give them love, they give me love.”

A year ago, a less mature Ray only gave his coaches and teammates grief.

“We asked him to take a little vacation the last four games last year,” Bremerton head coach Shawn Perkins said. “I told him, ‘B.J., if you’re going to have that attitude, you’re not going to be part of this team.’ I think he saw the error of his ways.”

Ray, a big part of Bremerton’s turnaround this season, doesn’t like to be reminded of that day he was asked to leave the Knights’ practice field.

“Once I took my football pants off, and was just sitting there in front of my locker, I knew I made a wrong choice,” he said. “I don’t even like to think about that now.”

That was a different B.J. Ray, a frustrated player who had not experienced a victory since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore. He was quick to chastise teammates and verbally question coaches. Now, he’s a leader on an exciting team that finds itself contending for a postseason playoff berth.

“He’s grown up,” said Perkins of the fleet 6-foot senior who has caught five touchdown passes in his last two games, including the game-winner with 13 seconds left in a wild 39-34 victory over Central Kitsap on Friday, Oct. 9. “He’s matured and figured out it didn’t pay to be a little boy anymore.

“He’s grown up to be a man and taken on that leadership role that we knew was in him.”

Ray pounds that fist into his palm some more. There’s nothing wrong with his attitude now. He’s having fun, but it’s business when he’s on the field.

“I did some soul searching,” he said. “I really wanted to be out here for my senior year. I knew deep down I wanted to be on this team and help them. And it’s been great. We’re tight. This is a really close team.”

Ray said the bonding started in the summer at the week-long Central Washington University team camp, where they roomed together in the dorm at Ellensburg and battled against teams from other parts of the state.

“The only way to survive is to come together,” Ray said, “and we came together good.”

The togetherness continued when they returned home. The Knights hit the weight room together. And it continues during the season, whether they’re running the hills at Memorial Stadium or singing the school fight song, as they do at the conclusion of every practice.

Ray’s just thankful to be part of it.

“I’ve done a lot of growing up and thinking,” he said. “I became a mature man and I gained a family. You don’t want to let them down. But if you do mess up, they still have love for you.”

Perkins won’t let adversity slow Ray down. When he dropped a couple of passes earlier this season in a game against South Kitsap, a distraught Ray came off the field and told his coach to put somebody else in his place.

“Every game for me is so emotional,” said Ray. “I have this passion for it, but I don’t want to let my family down.”

An animated Perkins got in Ray’s tear-stained face on the sidelines.

“I personally challenged him,” Perkins said. “He never had somebody believe in him totally like that. We believe in B.J. We believe in all of our players.”

After a miscommunication with quarterback Joe Bollinger last week that led to an interception late in the fourth quarter against Central Kitsap, Ray came back and said he’d make up for the mistake, and he did, sneaking behind the defense to haul in a 6-yard touchdown pass that enabled the Knights to improve to 4-2.

Ray scored on a 2-yard pass in the opening half and hauled in a 27-yard touchdown pass on the opening possession of the third quarter, soaring over a Central Kitsap defensive back, who actually had pretty good coverage on a route down the sidelines.

“Kellen (Alley) might be a step faster. He’ll just blow by a defender to get open, but B.J. really does a nice job of adjusting to the ball,” Bollinger said. “He just goes up and gets it.”

Ray’s six-catch, 81-yard game against Central Kitsap came just a week after making five catches for 48 yards — two for touchdowns — against North Kitsap.

“Once Joe puts the ball in the air, I’ll fight for it. I’ll do anything I can to catch that ball,” Ray said. “If I see Kellen or somebody make a play, I get pumped up. If somebody lays a big hit, I just get excited. That’s my brother. If he lays it on the line, I’m going to lay it on the line.”

Ray’s other family is a big one, too. Besides his parents, Cathy and Correa, he’s got six sisters and three brothers. They, no doubt, are as proud of Barjona (B.J.) as his teammates and coaches.

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