Recalled Little: "We competed against each other like crazy. Then we started asking if we could sleep over each other's house and we became best of friends."
In what could be the Year of the Running Back in South Jersey football, Owens, Lawry, and Little are the leaders of the pack.
The three are coming off sensational junior seasons, having raised their games to another level in spurring their teams deep in the state tournament.
All three are from Gloucester County, and all three have committed to play at Football Bowl Subdivision programs: Owens at Michigan State, and Lawry and Little at Old Dominion, where they will be roommates.
And all three have interconnected roots stretching back to their days in youth sports, when Lawry and Little thought their future might be in basketball, and Owens was a sprinter and member of a 4x100 relay team instead of a locomotive of a fullback.
"It's amazing that we all grew up together and played against each other in Little League," Little said. "Now we're all seniors and regarded as some of the best players in South Jersey, getting ready to play college football."
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Little is a speedy, shifty athlete with a toughness that belies his frame. He ran for 1,075 yards on just 118 carries (a 9.1-yard average) and 16 touchdowns last season as Williamstown went 12-0 and captured the South Jersey Group 5 title.
Little specialized in timely big plays: a jarring hit that caused a fumble in a pivotal victory over South Jersey Group 4 champion Timber Creek, as well as three touchdowns in a playoff victory over Atlantic City and two more TDs in a sectional-final win over Southern.
"When you get to the playoffs, you want to raise your game," Little said. "You want to be known as a big-time player who plays his best at the biggest times."
Given his size, ability to catch the football, and instincts, Little projects as a slot receiver at Old Dominion. He caught 17 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns last season, and broke open the Braves' victory over Atlantic City with a 78-yard scoring reception.
"The thing that sets Marques apart is his knowledge of the game," said Williamstown senior fullback John Chamberlin, another top runner who gained 1,238 yards and scored 26 touchdowns last season.
"He's got great speed, but a lot of guys have speed. They don't have his understanding of the game."
The 5-10, 190-pound Lawry has uncanny balance and explosive speed that makes him a threat to go the distance on every play. He ran for 2,225 yards last season - the sixth-highest total in South Jersey history - and led Kingsway to an 8-4 record and the South Jersey Group 4 title game.
Like Little, Lawry played his best football in the biggest games. He scored 11 touchdowns in three tournament games, and also went for five touchdowns in a Thanksgiving Day victory over rival Clearview.
Lawry also scored five TDs in a victory over Moorestown in the first round, ran for 221 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over Lacey Township in the semifinals, and generated 243 yards from scrimmage (162 rushing, 81 receiving) and scored three touchdowns in a loss to Timber Creek in the sectional final.
"He's special," Kingsway coach Tony Barchuk said. "He's got that burst. Give him an inch, and he's gone."
The 6-1, 260-pound Owens is an imposing blend of size, strength, and speed. He's a burly back with a surprising burst, reminiscent of former Overbrook and Wisconsin star and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne.
Owens has bench-pressed 375 pounds and set a West Deptford program record with a dead lift of 660 pounds. He also is the team's second-fastest player, just a whisker behind wide receiver Shai Mumford.
Owens ran for 1,703 yards and 26 touchdowns last season as West Deptford went 12-0 and won the program's sixth South Jersey Group 2 title since 2002.
And like his old friends, Owens was at his best when it mattered most: He ran for 206 yards and five touchdowns in a victory over Cedar Creek in the sectional final.
"It's all about finishing," Owens said. "Coach [Clyde Folsom] always says, 'Run through the line, not to the line.' It's the same thing in the season - you want to finish strong."
West Deptford, Kingsway, and Williamstown are in different divisions and different groups - although the Dragons and Braves will play Nov. 1 this season in a renewal of an old Tri-County Royal rivalry - limiting the competition among the three running backs.
But it's there. It has been there since they were young athletes, pushing themselves and each other to this point as three of the top football players in the state.
"You're always watching to see what the other guys are doing," Owens said. "It's friendly competition, but it's still competition. I always want to see how many yards they gained, how many touchdowns they scored, because I always want to do better than them."
Year of the Running Back
Here are some of South Jersey's top running backs.
Gerald Owens, senior, West Deptford. This Michigan State recruit ran for 1,703 yards and 26 touchdowns last season.
Ray Lawry, senior, Kingsway. An Old Dominion recruit, Lawry ran for 2,225 yards and scored 16 touchdowns in the Dragons' final four games of 2012.
Marques Little, senior, Williamstown. This Old Dominion recruit ran for 1,075 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught six TD passes for the South Jersey Group 5 champions.
Ben Boyer, senior, Gloucester. He ran for 1,793 yards last year and enters this season with 3,596 career yards, just 726 short of the all-time record for Camden County.
John Chamberlin, senior, Williamstown. Chamberlin ran for 1,237 yards and scored 26 touchdowns.
Rob Ennis, junior, Millville. He burst on the scene last season with 1,509 yards.
Kenyatta Greene, senior, Northern Burlington. Greene ran for 1,295 yards for the South Jersey Group 4 finalists.
Rob Hooks, senior, Delsea. Hooks ran for 1,268 yards, including 203 in the South Jersey Group 3 final.
Kahleil Chisolm, senior, Audubon. He ran for 1,279 yards as a junior and 1,059 as a sophomore.
Isaiah Gibson, senior, Rancocas Valley. He ran for 1,123 yards last year.
De'Hahn Milledge, senior, Cumberland. Milledge ran for 1,179 yards.
Taalib Gerald, senior, Holy Spirit. He ran for 1,062 yards for the Non-Public 2 state champions.
- Phil Anastasia
Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com. Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.inquirer.com/