By Joe St. Henry
Review Contributing Sports Writer
This year’s Lake Orion varsity football team reminds Head Coach Chris Bell of his first Dragon team 19 years ago, which reached the state semi-finals.
While he is not making any bold predictions, Bell does believe this year’s team exhibits many of the same traits that made the players back then successful, as well as other winning Dragon football teams he has coached.
“These kids are old-fashioned Orion Tough,” Bell said. “They practice hard, play hard and are a real physical team that plays aggressive and likes to compete. They really get at it.”
Bell likes the mix of upperclassmen on the team this year. He said his senior players are strong leaders who are hungry to qualify for the state postseason playoffs after missing them the past two years.
“They want to finish their careers the right way,” the head coach said. The junior class simply loves to play the game of football, Bell explained, noting “these kids show up to play every day.”
On offense, Lake Orion returns five players who saw significant game time last year.
The Dragons will be led by seniors Nick Novak, a three-year starter at offensive tackle who will be playing for the Naval Academy next year, and center Jeff McCarty, who played guard last season and is one of the state’s best long snappers.
Senior wide receiver Max Horneffer missed most of last season with an injury, but Bell says he still has great speed.
Senior Danny White is a track sprinter and will split time at running back and slot receiver. Senior Chris Wilson will be the Dragons’ starting running back, who Bell says has very good speed and runs hard.
Lake Orion’s quarterback position will be filled by senior Ryan Kolp and junior John Marshall. Bell said both have strong arms and can make all the throws in the offense – the key to winning the starting role will be who can manage a game the best.
The head coach expects the Dragon offense to be less predictable than in recent years. He said it has multiple players with speed to attack the perimeter in the jet sweep offense, plus a north-south power running game to attack the interior. Combine this with quarterbacks who can throw and receivers capable of stretching the defense vertically.
“You have to be able to run and throw the ball effectively in our league to be successful,” Bell said. “While we’ll still run the ball to set up the passing game, I expect our offense to be more dynamic this season compared to last year.”
Defensively, the Dragons will be led by their linebackers, all of whom started games last season. These include junior Tyler Vestrand; senior Roger White; and Kolp, who started every game last season and will play on defense depending on how the quarterback duel plays out.
Another strength will be the Dragons’ secondary, which Bell said is filled with strong athletes with significant game experience. Lake Orion’s starting cornerbacks are seniors Jaren Albright, a three-year varsity player, and Chris Brown, who has blossomed this summer, Bell said. Senior safety Joe Slayton, another three-year varsity player, is a smart player and great tackler, the head coach added.
The defensive line will be anchored by senior tackle Nick Rose, who Bell said has added significant size and strength since last season, and will be tough to block. Novak also will see significant time on the defensive line at the tackle position.
As upbeat as he is about the upcoming season, Bell said the team must learn to play sound, fundamental football, for there are no easy games in the OAA Red Division.
“If everyone comes prepared and does their job, we’ll be hard to beat,” he said. “We play a lot of talented teams. If you don’t play fundamental football, you get exposed.”
The Dragons open their season against Chippewa Valley on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Wayne State.
“Chippewa Valley is always tough. It’s a big opener for us, just like we’re a big opener for them. It’s going to be a great test,” he said. “If we play well and take care of the ball we should do well.”