Lakota West High School’s football program may seem like it’s in a state of turmoil right now, but that’s not how Jeff Wadl views it.
Larry Cox was the Firebirds’ head coach for the first 21 years of the program before resigning in May, and longtime assistant Wadl agreed to take over as the interim head coach this season. And West is coming off back-to-back 2-8 campaigns.
“We’re not worried about what the media says. We’re not worried about what the polls say. We’re not worried about what they say on Yappi,” Wadl said. “The other thing is what fans say. The fans are going to respond positively or negatively based on your performance, and sometimes it’s always going to be negative because they’re never going to see the good in things. That’s just how people are.
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“So what you have to do is stick with the guys in the locker room and count on them to help you win games. Nobody else cares about us. Everybody else is glad we had back-to-back 2-8s.
“I believe that these kids have committed themselves in the offseason, and we’re turning the page. Almost the entire coaching staff is back. This is team No. 22, and we’re all in the same boat together.”
Will Mahone (defensive backs) and Dominic DeNoma (defensive line) are the new coaches on West’s staff. Carlton Gray is the defensive coordinator, Andrew Phelan is running the offense (with Brenton Eisenhard in charge of the passing game), and John Nicol is handling the special teams.
Wadl believes West has plenty of talent and a lot of juniors who will be much better this year after taking their lumps as sophomores.
“When I look at all those games we played last year and the kids that we were starting who were up against the GMC — the Greater Miami Conference or Grown Man’s Conference — you just can’t go out with sophomores and expect to win,” Wadl said. “You can start a couple who are studs, but you’re not going to go out there with eight or nine and win a game.
“There’s that old adage that the number of sophomores you start is the number of games you are going to lose. Well, I guess there was credence to that because we lost eight games and we started on average eight sophomores.”
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One of those sophomore studs was running back David Afari, the GMC’s regular-season rushing champion with 1,109 yards on 188 carries.
Wadl said Afari will carry the ball a lot in 2018, but he won’t be West’s only back. Seniors Jalen Swanson and Terrance Owensby, a transfer from Mount Healthy, will have the ball in their hands as well.
“David Afari is going to be the workhorse, but he’s not going to be worked to death,” Wadl said. “One of the reasons teams fail is because you work your good horses to death. People will try to take things away that David does well. We have to be able to get the ball on the perimeter. We’re not going to be one-dimensional. We’re not just going to hammer the ball inside three plays in a row.”
Wadl said the offense is essentially a multiple spread, “but we can still get in the I-formation and power people if we want to.”
The quarterback job is a competition between senior D.J. Christon, who moved in from Georgia in the spring, senior Charlie Hall and sophomore Caleb Rao.
Senior wide receiver Dylan Jones returns after leading the Firebirds with 32 reeptions for 274 yards and two touchdowns last season. Senior Jay Harris is another quality target.
The offensive line could be a strength, according to Wadl. Senior tackle Ryan Francisco (6-3, 290) and senior Ryland Chaney (6-0, 235) — who’s moving from center to guard this year — are returning.
Junior tackle Ethan Elliott (6-5, 280) and senior guard Anthony Briede (6-2, 240) also have some experience. Junior Aaron Thomas (6-0, 260) may be the center, though Francisco could also play there.
“I believe the line has a real opportunity to be vastly improved over the last two years,” Wadl said.
The Firebirds will use the Tampa 2 defense, a variation of the 4-3. Senior end Steven Faucheux (6-5, 275) and senior cornerback Jeremiah Ross are returning and committed to Purdue and Cincinnati, respectively.
Junior tackle Jake Kieffer (6-1, 240) is also back, and senior end Ladonnis Griffin (6-2, 260) saw some action in 2017. Junior Daved Jones heads the linebacking corps and will likely be joined by senior Nate Martin as a starter on the outside. Junior Isaac Kolosik is the leading candidate at middle linebacker.
In the secondary, junior Hunter Anderson returns at cornerback. Junior Truman Mason looks to be one of the safeties.
The kicking game should be a strength with senior Nicklas Hjort returning as the place-kicker and punter.
“I think this is one of the smartest teams we’ve had in about three years,” Wadl said. “That’s why I have a lot of confidence in these guys. Smart players very seldom do dumb things. And I think our overall size and speed have improved.
“The biggest concern about this team is, can we write our own chapter to this program? Or are we going to let things that happened the last couple years creep back into our minds? I think anybody who coaches is part psychology teacher and part coach.
“Our mentality is we’re going to take some risks. We’re willing to do some things that maybe you’re not willing to do. We’re going to do some things that are going to make you feel uncomfortable. We’re going to try to dictate the game as much as we can.”
West will have three scrimmages, two in the coming week. The Firebirds will host Trotwood-Madison and Belmont on Tuesday and travel to Wayne on Saturday, then visit Hamilton on Aug. 17.
LAKOTA WEST FIREBIRDS
Coach: Jeff Wadl, first season (interim)
OHSAA designation: Division I, Region 4
Playoff history: 2-5 in 5 appearances (2004, 2006, 2009, 2013, 2014)
2017 record: 2-8 overall, 2-6 in the Greater Miami Conference (eighth)
Schedule: Aug. 24 — vs. St. Xavier at Paul Brown Stadium, 7 p.m.; Aug. 31 — at Centerville, 7 p.m.; Sept. 7 — at Sycamore, 7 p.m.; Sept. 14 — at Fairfield, 7 p.m.; Sept. 21 — Oak Hills, 7 p.m.; Sept. 28 — Mason, 7 p.m.; Oct. 5 — at Lakota East, 7 p.m.; Oct. 12 — Princeton, 7 p.m.; Oct. 19 — at Middletown, 7 p.m.; Oct. 26 — Colerain, 7 p.m.