Review Sports Contributor
What Lake Orion’s varsity football team may lack in experience as the 2018 season approaches, it more than makes up in athleticism and hunger, according to Head Coach John Blackstock.
The team’s desire to return the Dragons to the state playoffs after a one-year drought provided plenty of motivation this past off-season, he said. This commitment was clear in the team’s work in the weight room and special conditioning sessions, led by professional trainers from a local gym; 16 players participated in speed training over the summer.
“I always thought we did a good job with our off-season training, but we tried something different and these guys took it to another level,” Blackstock said. “The kids bought into it. The training really focused on building the total athlete with a focus on the core body.
“We’re seeing the results on the field already. I think we are faster overall and more athletic.”
Blackstock says the team’s opening day roster will feature about 65 players, an ideal number for a varsity football program, made up of an even split of juniors and seniors.
“Both classes have their strengths,” he said. “Line play for seniors, skill positions for juniors.”
The head coach added preseason camp is usually an eye-opener for the juniors, who now have to compete against another class for playing time.
“They’re lining up against guys who are a year older and often stronger and faster, plus more familiar with our schemes,” Blackstock said. “It’s a real challenge for them.”
A group of these seniors are projected to start on the offensive line, one of the Dragons’ projected strengths. They will be led by returning lineman Hunter Chambers, a second team All OAA selection last year.
Other key senior offensive lineman include Chris Vernon, Sebastian Marku and Zac Foote.
Blackstock said the Dragon receivers will battle it out for playing time, led by returning wideout junior Drew Van Heck, seniors Branden Robinson and Matt Freeman and junior Mitch Howell.
Senior tight ends Ben Ulrich and Matt Metter should also play key roles on offense. The head coach says they are both multi-sport athletes with good hands and can run well.
The running game will be handled by four backs, each with a different running style. They will be led by senior Jack DeBrincat and junior Kobe Manzo, a physical runner with deceptive speed, Blackstock said.
Junior Blaze Lauer returns at quarterback after a strong off-season. He was the starting signal caller for the last six games of the season last year, often extending plays with his speed and elusiveness. He passed for six touchdowns and ran for three more.
“Blaze is ready,” the head coach said. “All his throws are stronger and he has a much better understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”
Blackstock is excited about the team’s improved depth at the skill positions, something that hampered the team last year, especially when players got hurt.
“Our depth will enable us to do more things and open up the offense more,” he said. “It will also help us work through injuries better.”
Defensively, the Dragons strength will be its secondary, led by Van Heck. In addition to starting on the varsity football team, he also was on the varsity basketball and baseball teams last year.
Cornerbacks Marcus Brown, another multi-sport athlete, and Sanai Pillot round out the unit.
Leading the linebacker corps will be junior linebacker Isaac Kinne, who started nine games last year, and senior Josh Wuensch.
Blackstock admitted the defensive line is the Dragons’ biggest question mark. The unit lacks experience, but he said they are ready to make their mark. Senior Ben Sally will anchor this group.
“It will be hard to replace some of our seniors from last year from a physical standpoint,” he said. “But our defensive unit always plays hard and I expect the same this year. We’ll see who steps up.”
The defending Division 1 state champion Clarkston Wolves are the favorites to again win the tough OAA Red, but Blackstock thinks West Bloomfield and Rochester Adams cannot be counted out. He stressed the league is one of the state’s best, with no “week off” for anybody.
“There’s no let down in the OAA Red,” he said. “It’s intense every week. Success for us will be to be in the hunt all season and qualifying for the state playoffs.”
The Dragons open the season against Lapeer High School on Aug. 23, at the University of Michigan. The Big House showdown will be the first time these teams have met since the two Lapeer high schools merged a few years ago.
“We’ve been talking for a long time that Lake Orion and Lapeer should play each other,” Blackstock said. “We’re both close-knit communities with one high school and strong football traditions.
“It will be a great way to start the season.”