Lakota West High School football coach Larry Cox looked back at the 2016 campaign and knew some big changes needed to be made across the board in order to bounce back this season.
The Firebirds went from a 7-3 record in 2015 to 2-8 last year.
“The focus coming in was getting the right guys on the bus,” Cox said. “We were 2-8. We felt like we wanted to step up everybody’s commitment — starting with the coaches and filtering down to the kids.”
That process really started with the sports medicine change to the reputable Dr. Timothy Kremchek and Beacon Orthopaedics — when the contract with Premier Health expired — and the addition of a strength and conditioning coach, both of which Cox said “provided a new vibe that everybody had to take their game up a little bit.”
Strength and conditioning became more important this offseason with a young cast of players expected to contribute this fall, and with numbers down slightly — Cox said because of raised expectations keeping some away who weren’t ready to commit — the health of the team takes added emphasis.
Much of the Firebirds’ struggles last year centered around a young, inexperienced offensive line, which made things difficult on now graduated quarterback Tony White. West had the most thrown interceptions in the Greater Miami Conference with 18, and the team ranked ninth in offensive yards (230.3) and points (17.3) per game.
“Last year’s team was real young up front, and when you have a young offensive line, you are going to struggle,” Cox said. “I don’t care how good your talent is. We wanted them to grow, get bigger, faster, stronger, and we expect your work ethic to raise and everything that goes with that. They’ve done a good job with that. We’ve raised the level of expectations on what it takes to be a football player. Our numbers dropped. In large part, we’re asking a lot, but you have to be willing to compete.”
Cox is more confident in the offense this year, even with all new skill players because the line boasts three returning starters in center Ryland Chaney, tackle Ryan Francisco and guard Elijah Hale, who are all juniors.
The Firebirds will be led by a pair of sophomores in quarterback Myjaden Horton, who saw action in one game last year, and tailback David Afari, who has the task of replacing multi-threat athlete Zelwyn Robinson, a first-team All-GMC player who rushed for 867 yards and 12 touchdowns and led the team in receiving with 503 yards and three scores.
“I don’t look at, ‘Oh, you’re a sophomore,’ ” Cox said. “If you want to be a varsity player, we’re going to play and act like varsity players. I need you to step up, and they’ve handled every challenge we’ve thrown at them.”
Despite having to replace first-team All-GMC players Marcos Aull and Clayton Bell at defensive back and linebacker, respectively, West’s defense is its biggest strength, and that should help early on as the offense continues to mold.
Carlton Gray returns as defensive coordinator, and a solid cast of returning players are back as well, including top college recruits like defensive linemen Tyler Bentley (Kentucky commit) and Steven Faucheux, and linebacker Xavier Peters.
The linebacking corps also features senior Landen Rosier and sophomores Daved Jones and Juan Jarrett, and seniors Cedric Thomas and Chris Johnson lead the secondary. Sophomore Jake Kieffer contributes at defensive end.
“We’ve got a lot of guys returning on defense, and I think that’s going to be the strongest part of our team this year and we’re really going to bring it,” Bentley said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys on offense that I think can make a lot of plays, and we should have a way better turnout than last season. We’re looking to shock a lot of teams.”
The Firebirds’ schedule won’t make that very easy. They open against 2016 playoff team Elder on Aug. 25 in a Skyline Chili Showdown game at Princeton and then meet a traditionally strong Centerville squad before kicking off GMC play against Fairfield — another playoff team — in Week 3.
West lost to Elder’s Greater Catholic League South Division rival Moeller and to Centerville in the first two games last year as part of an 0-6 start, which also included losses to three playoff teams, but Cox said that should have his young players better prepared for a similar schedule this season.
“I did that for this year’s sophomores,” he said. “They are not going to be afraid to play all those big schools. You take your lumps, but you learn to compete. Now they’re a little more ready.”