High school football: Expectations high for Lakota West as changed season begins

Lakota West made the playoffs for the first time since 2014 last season. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Lakota West High School football coach Tom Bolden isn’t shy about his expectations for the Firebirds to compete for the Greater Miami Conference title this year.

With a roster highlighted by Ohio State commits Tegra Tshabola and Jyaire Brown, among other college recruits and up-and-comers, West has plenty of talent and is looking to build off a quick turnaround in Bolden’s first season.

The Firebirds went 7-3 last year to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and celebrated their first winning season since 2015. Tshabola, a junior left tackle, and Brown, a junior cornerback who transferred in from Louisiana, will be key pieces to helping West take the next step.

West opens Friday against Colerain, which last year claimed a record 20th consecutive GMC title and has won 83 straight conference games.

“On paper, we’re extremely talented, but you know, like they say the game is not played on paper,” Bolden said. “So, we’re athletic, we’re very talented, and I think we got a chance to be pretty darn good. But we’ve got to make sure we’re doing all those small things to make sure that we’re in a position to be successful. I like where we’re at.”

Tshabola, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound tackle, anchors an offensive line that struggled with injuries last year but didn’t graduate anyone who started games. He committed to OSU in April, is the No. 4 overall Class of 2022 prospect in Ohio, according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, and has some athleticism despite his size, Bolden said.

Brown is listed one spot behind Tshabola in the state rankings, according to 247Sports.com, and both players rank 12th nationally at their position.

“There’s always been an abundance of great athletes, great football players at West,” Bolden said. “I just want to make sure I’m continuing to develop them. I’m probably harder on them than some of the others because with all that talent comes great responsibility. We’ve got a lot of guys with offers. We check that box with Division I talent, but the old adage of it takes more than talent so we have to make sure we’re solid in all aspects of the game.”

The defense especially has a lot of talent this year.

Defensive lineman Andre Proffit is committed to Akron, and the other returning starter on the defensive line, Aneesh Vyas, is likely headed to an Ivy League school. Linebacker Kameron Vargas, a transfer from Whitmer High School in Toledo, was the Northwest District Division I Defensive Player of the Year last year and an all-state selection.

Hamilton building momentum

Hamilton snuck into the playoffs with a 5-5 record last year, but now hopes to take another step in Nate Mahon’s second season, as the Big Blue seek their first winning record since 2010.

Mahon said there was a lot of excitement heading into the offseason, before COVID-19 delayed team workouts in mid-March. Just prior to that, Hamilton had a spring kickoff meeting with more than 100 players represented and when workouts resumed in June, the players were especially committed.

The Big Blue, led by running backs Kaleb Johnson and Keyshawn Stephens and offensive athlete and safety Malik Verdon, will be looking to build off that momentum in a shortened 2020 season. Verdon is a Miami University commit.

“I am personally excited about this group,” Mahon said. “I’ve got a lot of kids back from a successful season last year. We were moving in a positive direction, and I think everyone is excited, so we just need to make sure we get that momentum back. I had to win them over a little last year, but now we’re all seasoned and ready to go -- that’s a big difference.”

East trying to get over the hump

Lakota East has experienced just one losing season in the last eight years, but is coming off its third .500 mark in that stretch. The Thunderhawks opened 3-1 in 2019 before injuries and a tough back-half of the schedule took a toll with losses to Princeton, Fairfield, Colerain and Lakota West.

Hawks coach Rick Haynes is 56-50 in 10 years and has managed to keep his team among the top half of the GMC the last four seasons. The 2020 squad has potential to be strong if East can rebuild the defense, which lost several starters to graduation.

Junior quarterback T.J. Kathman returns from a broken collarbone that sidelined him for the final five games last year, and the top three rushers also are back — juniors Tavier Lugo-Flowers (166 carries, 595 yards, five TDs) and Charlie Kenrich (84 carries, 608 yards, three TDs) and senior wingback Josh Thornhill (70 carries, 635 yards, four TDs).

Fairfield looking to reload

The Indians, 10-2 in 2019, are coming off one of their best seasons in program history, but they graduated several seniors that have been a big part of their success the past few years.

Fairfield will have several holes to fill in 2020 after graduating at least 10 players to college programs, including running back JuTahn McClain (Kentucky), quarterback Sawiaha Ellis (Toledo) and linebacker Phoenix Porter (Eastern Illinois).

It’s not unusual for the Indians to reload. They’ve lost talented players before and bounced back, but it will be difficult to replicate a special 2019 season that saw the program win 10 games for the first time since 1986 and collect its first playoff win since 2000.

Depite the losses, the Indians are still ranked 21st in MaxPreps.com Ohio Preseason Top 25.

Middletown fighting uncertainty

The Middies resumed workouts last week after a temporary suspension of extracurricular activities July 30, but remain in a holding pattern as far as competition.

Superintendent Marlon Styles gave fall sports the go-ahead to resume skill training Aug. 17, as outline in the OHSAA’s Phase One Return to Play guidelines, which allow small-group sessions and no contact. Middletown went on and canceled its opener against Oak Hills, but athletic director J.D. Foust said the Middies are “holding out hope to be ready for Week 2 against Fairfield.”

Middletown finished 1-9 in 2019.

GMC PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jyaire Brown, Lakota West junior cornerback

Josh Bryant, Middletown senior running back/defensive back

Dontay Corleone, Colerain senior defensive lineman

Andrew Fehr, Sycamore senior quarterback

Kaleb Johnson, Hamilton junior running back

Cameron Junior, Middletown senior linebacker

Tavier Lugo-Flowers, Lakota East junior fullback

Jaydan Mayes, Fairfield senior cornerback

Paul Rodriguez, Mason senior offensive lineman

Keyshawn Stephens, Hamilton junior running back

Tegra Tshabola, Lakota West junior offensive tackle

Ethan Tyla, Fairfield senior guard

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