Hamilton quarterback Elijah Spradling hands the ball off to Keyshawn Stephens during their game against Middletown on Oct. 5 at Virgil Schwarm Stadium in Hamilton. Host Big Blue won 15-14. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Prep football: Hamilton out to slow Lakota East’s playoff push

Rick Haynes said his Lakota East High School football team is right where it wants to be at this point in the season — even coming off a blowout loss to perennial Greater Miami Conference power Colerain.

The Thunderhawks (5-3, 4-2 GMC) still remain in the playoff picture at eighth in the Division I, Region 4 computer ratings this week and are playing to extend their season at least an extra week.

The next obstacle comes in the form of what Haynes said is a Hamilton team that appears better than its record. East travels to play the Big Blue (1-7, 1-5 GMC) on Friday at Virgil Schwarm Stadium.

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“Everyone wants to keep improving every week,” Haynes said. “We’re just glad we are playing meaningful games at the end of the season. We can’t win the league, but we still have a chance, if we play well, to get in the playoffs and that’s what you want.”

Hamilton has long been out of that picture, but coach Chad Murphy said the advantage of having a young team is there is still a hunger to keep improving.

The Big Blue are playing to finish strong. Their lone win was against Middletown two weeks ago, but they’ve only been blown out by GMC leaders Colerain and Fairfield. Every other game was decided by 14 points or less.

“This team has been really good as far as practicing and making each game meaningful no matter our record,” Murphy said. “These kids are battling no matter what, and maybe that’s the good thing about being young. They know they are a good team and they believe that, but we just have to do enough right things to win.”

This game presents challenges for both defenses especially because of the uniqueness of the offenses. East brings a triple-option offense that requires a lot of discipline to stop, and Hamilton is running a lot of Wildcat with sophomore running back Keyshawn Stephens taking direct snaps.

The Big Blue lost starting quarterback Khaliyal Sowell to injury in Week 3, and he has yet to return.

“Offensively, they are very good,” Haynes said. “Their running back, now basically their quarterback, is very good, and he presents a lot of problems. We have to rally to the ball because he can break tackles and you never know when the play is over because he stays on his feet. We just have to make sure guys understand they have to make sure he is down.”

Haynes said Hamilton seems to be improving defensively, but it’s clear the players are learning a new system and adapting to a new defensive coordinator.

Murphy said big plays are still hurting his team on defense. Last week in a 28-14 loss to Sycamore, the Big Blue were up 14-7 nearing halftime with the Aviators facing a third-and-15, but Sycamore broke through on a screen pass and was able to tie the game with 56 seconds left in the second quarter.

East has the ability to expose weaknesses in a defense with the triple-option, especially with fullback Jack Dobrozsi, who rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns over 50 yards each two weeks ago.

“They run their offense so well,” Murphy said. “They’ve got three good options on every play, and you can’t make mistakes, plus there is the play-action component too. We have to be disciplined on every single play.”

Hamilton’s offense has been effective between the 20s but the Big Blue have been unable to capitalize in the red zone. They’ve only scored more than 15 points twice.

Stephens ranks second in the GMC with 996 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, and freshman running back Kaleb Johnson adds 509 yards and three touchdowns.

“The offense continues to play pretty well,” Murphy said. “We just have to capitalize. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot more than a time or two. In the red zone, we keep coming up short, and we have played well on defense but just have to be more disciplined to make stops in key situations.”

Haynes will be emphasizing the importance of not overlooking Hamilton.

“When you deal with high school kids, you’re always concerned what the mental state is,” Haynes said. “We hope they are not overlooking anyone. We told them, ‘They are good and anyone on our schedule can beat us, so just keep grinding and getting better.’ They are a really good 1-7 team, and we still have a lot to play for so we can’t afford to overlook anyone.”

Friday’s game

What: Lakota East (5-3, 4-2 GMC) at Hamilton (1-7, 1-5 GMC), 7 p.m.

Where: Virgil Schwarm Stadium, 1165 Eaton Ave., Hamilton

Series: Lakota East leads 11-6 and has won the last seven meetings, including 30-21 in 2017

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