Versatile Bhatia strikes opponents in many ways Football: Despite his size, Long Reach stand-out not only catches over the middle on offense and intercepts on defense, he snaps the ball on kicks and is good academically. Colleges like what they see, too.

October 02, 1997|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Willy Bhatia of Long Reach is one of the county's most respected football players.

Respected by his teammates: "He's the best receiver I've ever played with," said Lightning running back Devin Conwell.

Respected by his opponents: Centennial's homecoming float last week depicted that school's giant Eagle mascot with a purple-clad dead football player at its feet. The player's uniform number was 8 -- Bhatia's number.

Respected by his coaches: "He's intelligent and a great leader with great hands who runs precise routes and is not afraid to catch the ball thrown over the middle," said Lightning coach Pete Hughes.

Respected by college recruiters: Despite his small stature, 5-foot-7, 158 pounds, William & Mary, Richmond, Marshall, Lehigh and Holy Cross are all interested in him.

Bhatia, a senior despite being just 16 (he skipped second grade), wants to earn a college football scholarship -- and colleges like him because he's smart. He has a 3.5 grade-point average and scored 1,200 on the SAT. They also like him because he can do so many things well on the football field.

In four games, Bhatia has caught 11 passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns. As a first team All-County receiver last season, his first at that position, he caught 40 passes for 769 yards and six touchdowns. But it's tougher now because teams know how good he is and, as a result, double-team him, especially when he runs a slant pattern across the middle.

"My stats aren't flying up there like last season, but I'm taking the pressure off our other receivers and have allowed our quarterback room to get it to them," Bhatia said. "So as long as we're winning, it doesn't really matter."

The Lightning is 3-1, its only loss to league-leading Wilde Lake.

Defensively, Bhatia plays either free safety or cornerback. As a free safety, he discourages other teams from throwing down the middle. As cornerback, he sometimes has to guard the other team's outstanding receiver.

He has intercepted three passes and recovered two fumbles. One of those fumbles was actually a strip of Wilde Lake's Quentin Collins, a player Bhatia calls the best defensive back he has faced.

Bhatia also has accounted for 23 tackles. In his sophomore year at Howard, he earned Defensive Player of the Year for the JV. He transferred to Long Reach when the technology magnet school opened last season.

"I would have played soccer at Howard if [Howard assistant coach] Tony Holland hadn't talked me into coming out for the football team my freshman year," Bhatia said.

Wide receiver and defensive back are not his only positions. Bhatia also is long snapper on punts and extra points, and he returns punts -- one for a touchdown against River Hill.

L "I'm on the field for everything but kickoffs," Bhatia said.

Until last week's victory over Centennial, when Long Reach's offense suddenly clicked after three inept games, Bhatia said he was afraid this might be a long season.

"We simplified our pro-set offense last week and ran only 15 plays, and that helped," Bhatia said.

Long Reach is now hoping to make the Class 1A state playoffs and will host the first round if it wins the remainder of its games.

Bhatia, who moved to Columbia in sixth grade from Silver Spring, lives with his mother. His father still lives in India, but on a visit this season he saw Bhatia play for the first time.

Bhatia also runs indoor and outdoor track, the 400-meters, 500, 800 and high jump. He finished second in the county indoor high jump and third in the 500.

He admires the Washington Redskins' Michael Westbrook and wore a Westbrook jersey to school last Wednesday. He's also a fan of Baltimore Raven Jermaine Lewis.

"Anytime I look down a college or pro roster and see a 5-foot-8 guy, it makes me happy," he said.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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