By Joe St. Henry
Review Sports Contributor
A new era of Lake Orion football officially begins this week, when the Dragons take the field led by new varsity head coach John Blackstock.
It is an opportunity he has prepared for as an assistant coach at Lake Orion for the past 19 years and college player at Central Michigan University, where his team won a MAC Championship.
Blackstock knows what he liked and disliked about his own coaches – both what motivated and frustrated him as a player. He also understands what it is like to be a coordinator or assistant coach and the requirements of those roles.
Lake Orion’s new coach thinks this experience has helped make the transition smooth for both the team and coaching staff, all of whom are returning for his first year in charge.
“The kids have been working hard since January,” he said. “We had our best attendance in the weight room in a long time and a great summer camp. We’re ready for the next step.”
Blackstock is excited about this year’s team and its attitude. Lake Orion returned to the state playoffs last year after a two-year hiatus and the senior class of players is hungry for more, he said. “I don’t think anybody was happy how the season ended last year (a first-round loss).”
While Dragon football fans will see some similarities with past squads, the head coach stressed there will be noticeable changes, too, especially on offense.
“We’re changing the tempo a bit in terms of the style of play,” Blackstock said. “You’ll see some things from before, but I think we’ll be a little more physical and rugged.
“You’re always looking for a good balance in terms of offensive production. If you can run well, you’ll be able to throw well, and vice versa. They go hand-in-hand.”
The Dragons return five starters on offense. Blackstock said he expects big seasons from senior wide receivers Pierce Burke and Jon Haggitt, as well as running back Dylan Frank.
“Dylan’s a workhorse – one of the strongest high school kids I’ve ever been around,” the coach said. “What people don’t realize is just how fast he is, too.”
There will be an ongoing battle at quarterback, between senior Johnny Marshall, who started eight games last year, and sophomore Blaze Lauer, who was last year’s JV quarterback as a freshman.
“Both are capable of leading us,” Blackstock said. “It should be a fun competition this summer and into the season. They both have their strengths.”
This year’s punting and placekicking duties will be handled by senior Parker Blust, who the head coach thinks will be more than capable of replacing the Dragons’ All-State punter from last season.
“If there is anybody who can step in and fill big shoes, it will be Parker,” Blackstock said. “He would have been our punter last year, but we had Taylor.”
A total of eight defensive starters return, with the unit’s strength being its defensive linemen and linebackers – all seniors with quite a bit of game experience, the head coach said.
They include linemen Jordan Lewis, Hunter Lagerquist and Trevor Burke, supported by starting linebackers Tyler Vestrand, Chris Kade and Sam Kinne. Returning defensive backs include Haggitt and fellow senior Chad Dolland.
“This is a rugged group that really enjoys the physical nature of the game,” Blackstock said. “They like to hit.”
The Dragons will have to get at it right from the start of the season. Their opening schedule is formidable, with Chippewa Valley on the road to start the season, then home games against Rochester Adams and West Bloomfield, one of the favorites to take the league title. The rest of the OAA Red lineup leaves no room for breathers, either.
“There used to be four or five games and you just knew your team was better than them,” Blackstock said. “Now, there’s not a weak team on the schedule. The league has really improved over the last four or five years, with great athletes and coaches doing nice jobs at each school.”
Lake Orion has switched up a couple of its coaching positions with familiar faces. Brad Fischer takes over as offensive coordinator and Brad Thomas will now run the defense.
Blackstock sees himself in charge of the big picture during practices and game nights.
“This isn’t about me, but about the players and our coaching staff,” he said. “I’m the motivator and encourager.”
Another trip to the state playoffs and deeper run should be plenty to inspire the Dragons in 2017.