Prep football: ‘So far, so good’ for inexperienced Thunderhawks

Lakota East quarterback Dylan Fry carries the ball during the Thunderhawks’ 31-28 victory over visiting Hamilton on Sept. 30, 2016. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Lakota East quarterback Dylan Fry carries the ball during the Thunderhawks’ 31-28 victory over visiting Hamilton on Sept. 30, 2016. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Rick Haynes has always been a believer in putting as many of his best athletes on defense as possible.

That has been an especially big challenge for the Lakota East High School football coach this summer after losing nine of 11 starters on that side of the ball.

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A veteran defense was the highlight of a 5-5 finish last year as the Thunderhawks held opponents to 20.9 points per game (fourth best in the Greater Miami Conference) and won four of their last six. A less experienced crew will lead the way this season, but Haynes still looks to his defense as the backbone for what he hopes amounts to an improved 2017 campaign.

“Defense has always got to be the point of emphasis when looking at personnel,” Haynes said. “In our league, you have to be able to stop somebody or it’s going to be a long season. Nothing changes because of losing nine starters. We just had a lot more holes to plug in.”





The two returning starters, defensive tackle Sam Ballman and outside linebacker Sal LaRubbio, will serve as the anchors and are both solid players to build the defense around. Ballman was a second-team All-GMC pick last year, and LaRubbio brings experience with 60 career tackles.

Most of the other seniors on the team played junior varsity last year rather than to sit behind the slew of players ahead of them in the Class of 2016, but inside linebacker Eddie Brady is emerging as another leader. Fellow senior inside linebacker Damerle Ball also has looked solid, according to Haynes, and junior free safety Avi McGary leads the secondary after posting two interceptions in just three games last year.

Haynes said several other players also are battling for spots, but the defense has looked competitive despite all the uncertainties.

“Our kids are doing everything we’re asking them to do and improving,” Haynes said. “We’ll find out Aug. 25, but so far, so good. We scrimmaged La Salle (last week), and defensively, despite having nine starters to replace, I thought we did well. Offensively, we did not play well. We have some things we need to clean up, but it’s still early and it’s all correctable.”







The offense struggled last season, especially early on as turnovers played a huge factor during a 1-3 start. Over the opening four games, the Hawks were minus-eight in turnover ratio, but they reversed that figure to go plus-three during their final six games.

East will be looking for a smoother start with senior quarterback Dylan Fry returning to lead the triple-option offense. In his first full year starting under center, Fry amassed 1,245 yards of total offense with 797 yards passing and 448 yards rushing and 10 total touchdowns and was named second-team All-GMC for his efforts.

Haynes is looking for even better numbers from him this year.

“If he stays healthy, he could have a real good year for us,” Haynes said. “He’s done a good job running the offense, and he can throw too, so it gives us more options.”

Fry is one of five returners on offense.





The Hawks lose their top two running backs with Tyler Van Fossen (638 yards rushing, eight touchdowns) and Tyler Glenn (383 yards rushing, six touchdowns in seven games) graduating, but senior Jeff Garcia, who was second on the team with 200 yards receiving last year, is ready for a bigger role this year and junior fullback Jack Dobrozsi is a major threat in goal-line situations.

Juniors Sean Church and Donnie Wilkinson also will share some of the load out of the backfield.

The four other returning starters are on the offensive line, which should help the new skill position players adjust more easily. Center Conor Fritzsche, guard Zach Robbins and guard/tackle Ethan Cook — all seniors — maintain three of the spots up front, along with senior tight end Alex Botkin.

“They are hard-working guys, so I feel good about having them back,” Haynes said. “We just need to fill in the other spots and get them on the same page, and I think we’ll be OK.”

East opens the season on the road with games against Walnut Hills (Aug. 25) and Kings (Sept. 1) before kicking off GMC play against Princeton in Week 3. The new eight-game GMC schedule leaves only Middletown out of the picture.

Haynes is hoping his Hawks pick up where they left off last season with the strong finish, which was capped by a win over rival Lakota West in the finale.

“Every year is different, but you like that momentum going into the offseason,” Haynes said. “We looked good going in to the spring, and hopefully it’s something we pick up on to start the year.”


Coach: Rick Haynes, eighth season (37-37)

OHSAA designation: Division I, Region 4

Playoff history: 2-2 in two appearances (2012, 2014)

2016 record: 5-5 overall, 4-3 in the Greater Miami Conference (fourth, tied)

Schedule: Aug. 25 — at Walnut Hills, 7 p.m.; Sept. 1 — at Kings, 7 p.m.; Sept. 8 — Princeton, 7 p.m.; Sept. 15 — at Fairfield, 7 p.m.; Sept. 22 — Oak Hills, 7 p.m.; Sept. 29 — at Lakota West, 7 p.m.; Oct. 6 — at Colerain, 7 p.m.; Oct. 13 — Hamilton, 7 p.m.; Oct. 20 — at Sycamore, 7 p.m.; Oct. 27 — Mason, 7 p.m.

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