After nightmarish 2017, Lake ready to turn the page

BY Joe Scalzo


LAKE TWP.  Just past 10 a.m., Monday, as his team practiced in the type of heat that could kill a cactus, Lake coach Dan DeGeorge stood on the practice field looking for players who could lead the Blue Streaks out of the desert.

"We don't walk!" he shouted between plays. "The mailman walks!"

"We have a decision to make — are we gonna feel sorry for ourselves because it's hot? Or are we going to be ready to play in the fourth quarter on Aug. 24?"

"Leaders! I need leaders!"

"It's supposed to be hard!"

True, but at a school like Lake, August is supposed to be harder than October. Only two Stark County schools (McKinley and Massillon) have more playoff appearances than Lake's 18, and only three (McKinley, Massillon and Central) have more playoff wins the Blue Streaks' 20. But after consecutive playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, the bottom fell out of the Blue Streaks' 2017 season as they battled injuries and disbelief en route to a 1-9 finish, the worst in school history.

"We've really turned the page since last year, for obvious reasons," DeGeorge said. "It was just one of those years where everything snowballed. Youth, injuries, our opponents were very good. But no excuses on our end. We've got to be much more competitive and the kids understand that.

"We're not changing what we do."

Although Lake wasn't necessarily expected to challenge for a Federal League title last year, no one expected a nine-game losing streak to end the season, either. The Blue Streaks opened the year with a 41-13 win over Northwest, then lost the next two games by a combined three points (30-28 to Dover and 21-20 to Copley). The Copley loss cost them their quarterback — Paul Troyer broke his foot and didn't return until Week 9, forcing Lake to move running back Cameron Martin under center — and the next two losses (21-7 to Ashland and 35-32 to Jackson) cost them their season. Their next four losses all came by 30 points or more.

"Once it started going downhill, it kept on rolling," said senior linebacker/running back Noah Collins, who also missed several games because of an injury. "We had some guys with bad attitudes."

Added Martin, "We got a lot of doubt from our (high school) community. People were saying negative things toward our team. I feel like there was a lot of doubt in our (high school) community and we let that creep into our heads."

But, as Collins said with a shrug, "Kids are kids. Sometimes they say stupid stuff. ... It was a one-year deal and we're turning the page from that. We barely talk about it anymore."

Instead, they're talking about the same things they always talk about at Lake: leadership and work ethic. When DeGeorge breaks down his roster, he almost always cites what a player has done in the offseason, mentally and physically. As the coach of the Federal League's smallest school, he's constantly searching for players who are willing to embrace the Blue Streaks' blue-collar identity.

Case in point: When he spoke to his team after Monday's practice, he cited two speeches from the Hall of Fame enshrinement: Brian Urlacher's and Brian Dawkins'. Both were about being a teammate.

"The one thing Brian Urlacher wanted to be remembered as was a great teammate," DeGeorge said. "Not a great player, a great teammate. If you're not willing to put the team first, we don't want you. Here's a guy going into the Hall of Fame and he wasn't talking about himself. He was talking about his desire to be a great teammate.

"Brian Dawkins, he talked about how he was scared to let his teammates down. He wasn't scared to fail for himself. It's the 'we' before 'me,' guys. If you look on the locker room wall at all the playoff teams here, all of them were led by people that put the we before me."

All of those teams also featured talented players and this year's Blue Streaks have a few of those, too. Despite missing two games with a concussion — and being forced to switch to quarterback when Paul Troyer broke his foot — Martin led the team in rushing with 815 yards and 10 TDs. With Troyer returning, Martin will be back at running back in an offense that also returns leading receiver Tye Hunt, who caught 31 passes for 455 yards and three TDs.

Lake should also be better along the offensive line, which traditionally has been a program strength.

"A lot of guys last year didn't buy into their size," Martin said. "They weren't physical enough, they weren't aggressive. This year, they don't care what they look like. They're ready to get down in the dirt and hit some people."

Lake also has better depth up and down the roster thanks to a sophomore class that is drawing comparisons to the one Lake had in 1989. Two years later, those Blue Streak seniors started 13-0 before falling in the Division II state final.

"The sophomore class has potential, but they haven't done anything yet so people should stop talking about them," DeGeorge said.

Not likely.

"That whole sophomore class is ready to go at you," Collins said, grinning. "Even the smaller guys, no one is scared."

"We're getting a lot better looks from our scout team," Martin added. "Last year, it was like we scored a touchdown every other play. Now we have to work for yards."

Will that translate into wins? Time will tell. The Blue Streaks have challenging non-league games against Columbus West, Dover, Copley and Louisville before starting the Federal League schedule.

But this is August. And in August, optimism reigns.

"We're not the fastest team, we're not the biggest team, but we've always had guys that work hard and play hard," Martin said. "We didn't have that last year. The tides have turned this year and we're a lot better team.

"I'd like to get back to the playoffs, especially since this is probably my last season playing football. We'd like to expand our season a little bit from last year because it was rough."

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On Twitter: @jscalzoREP



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