When Larry Cox came in as Lakota West High School’s first — and only to date — head football coach after the district split in 1997, he knew it would be a bit of a rough transition.
The incoming seniors that year had a choice between the two new high schools and most of those that played football followed the old Lakota coach, Greg Bailie, to East. The split in the overall talent pool and decrease in numbers were going to be an impact, regardless.
The Firebirds hobbled through two losing seasons before the program found its footing for a 7-3 finish in 1999 with the first class of seniors to go all three years at the new school, which begins with 10th grade.
LAKOTA EAST: Top 7 players in program history
“If you look at the diversity alone, you can see the difference in how our school district has progressed from 21 years ago,” Cox said. “Those first few years were rough, I’m not going to lie, but it’s been a labor of love as it’s grown.”
Cox guided the Firebirds to their first playoff appearance in 2004 and their first Greater Miami Conference crown in 2009. He is 112-97 in 21 seasons, a credit to the many talented players and coaches he has worked with over the years, Cox said.
Twenty-four players since 1998 have been named all-state, seven graduates of the program have enjoyed All-American seasons in college and six former Firebirds have seen time on NFL rosters.
“It’s been fun,” Cox said. “I think it’s because, yeah, we want to win, but more than anything we want to help kids get somewhere in life, whether that’s in life, college, military, onto a job. We want to give them the tools to succeed. If you get good kids that buy into the vision, success is just a matter of time. You’ll win when you have the talent. We’ve had a lot of it over the years, but I’ve been blessed to have good coaches, good athletes, good administrations to work with.”
Here’s who we consider the all-time seven best football players at Lakota West in a continuing series. Have something to say about this alphabetical list? Email your comments to email@example.com.
Location: West Chester Township, Butler County
Affiliation: Greater Miami Conference
Division: D-1, Region 4
1. Josh Chichester, TE, 2006: The 6-foot-8 tight end was a two-time All-GMC pick and still owns Lakota School District records in receiving yards in a season (734) and career receiving yards (1,793) to go along with a handful of other West records in basketball. He played four years of football at the University of Louisville (along with one in basketball), recording 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns on 99 receptions for his career, and was invited to rookie training camp with the New Orleans Saints upon graduation in 2011. His stay was brief, but he later played in the Arena Football League, Canadian Football League and Indoor Football League before turning back to basketball professionally.
2. Jordan Hicks, LB, 2010: Hicks helped the Firebirds (9-2, 7-0 GMC) to their first-ever GMC title in 2009 and was named the conference’s Defensive Athlete of the Year after recording 95 tackles. His 244 career tackles over three seasons still rank him third in program history. Hicks, the No. 1 outside linebacker and seventh-rated recruit overall, went on to a second team all-American at the University of Texas and was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft. His first season was cut in half because of injury but he had 50 tackles, a 67-yard interception return for a touchdown and a sack through eight games. Hicks led the Eagles’ linebacking corp with five interceptions and 85 tackles last year, starting all 16 games. He is set to start at middle linebacker in 2017.
3. Dave Hutzelman, RB/DB, 2001: As far as Cox knows, Hutzelman was the last player in the GMC to be named all-conference on both sides of the ball in a single season. He was a first-team pick at strong safety after recording 52 tackles and four interceptions as a senior and second-team running back after becoming the first Firebird to rush for 200 yards in a single game. A three-sport athlete, Hutzelman walked onto the Miami University football team and rose through the ranks as a backup middle linebacker by his junior year. He played 10 games as a senior and ranked fourth in total tackles with 50. Hutzelman was inducted into the Lakota Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
4. Ryan Kelly, OL, 2011: The nation’s No. 2-rated center in the country coming out of high school at 6-5 and 280 pounds, Kelly has lived up to the hype ever since. He won the Rimington Award (given to the top center in college football) as a fifth-year senior at Alabama in 2015, and the consensus first-team All-American and captain helped the Crimson Tide win the national title that year. Kelly was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the 2016 draft (18th overall) and was the team’s starting center for all 16 games his rookie year. It was recently announced that he is expected to miss six to eight weeks with a foot injury to open the 2017 season.
5. Matt Lawless, LB, 1999: The program’s first all-state player, Lawless became an Associated Press Division III All-American at Mount St. Joseph as a senior in 2006 after originally signing with the University of Findlay. He was a two-time All-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year at defensive end and linebacker. He still holds several of West’s all-time tackle records, including single-game total (19), 10-game season total for solo tackles (82) and total tackles (137), career solo tackles (124) and career total tackles (284). He also leads with nine career sacks. Lawless was inducted into the Lakota Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.
6. Mike Lovell, RB, 2002: Another 2008 inductee into the Lakota HOF, Lovell led West to three winning seasons, earning All-GMC recognition in two of them (honorable mention as a junior and first team as a senior). He still ranks as the all-time single-season scorer at West after recording 22 touchdowns in 2001 when he was named the GMC Offensive Player of the Year and Butler County Offensive Player of the Year. At the time, he had set the Lakota district single-season record for rushing yards (1,661), which since has only been passed at West by Jordan Thompson in 2009, and he still is the Firebirds’ all-time career rushing leader at 3,555 yards.
Lovell went on to start all four years at Mount St. Joseph, earning three first team All-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference honors, two conference Player of the Year awards and HCAC Player of the Decade for all sports. He set a single-season rushing record in 2006 with 1,318 yards and was a team captain his final two years.
7. Dane Romero, QB/RB/DB, 2005: Romero was a second-team all-state defensive back and Butler County Defensive Player of the Year as a senior while also serving as the quarterback of the first West team to make the playoffs in 2004 when he made the switch from tailback to manage the offense. He rushed for 845 yards and eight touchdowns that year while throwing for 878 yards and nine scores, and he also had 63 tackles. As a junior, he became the first player to lead the Firebirds in both rushing yards and tackles. His career rushing total of 2,955 yards is the third highest in Lakota history.
Romero went on to become a first-team All-American at Wofford College after rushing for 1,078 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior. He ranks 15th in school history with 1,945 career rushing yards and fifth with 32 rushing touchdowns. Romero was inducted into Wofford’s Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Lakota HOF in 2016.