Jeff Wadl hasn’t been fazed by low expectations for his Lakota West High School football team this year.
Voted eighth in the Greater Miami Conference preseason coaches poll and coming off back-to-back 2-8 seasons, the Firebirds will begin the 2018 campaign with a big challenge Friday night, facing St. Xavier at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I’m glad we were picked eighth in the GMC. Bury us. I don’t care,” said Wadl, West’s interim head coach after the May resignation of Larry Cox. “That’s not who we are. We have all the tools in the toolbox that we need. If we use them right, we’re going to be in a position to be very competitive.”
It’s the first-ever regular-season meeting between the two programs. The Bombers routed the Firebirds 44-3 in the 2006 Division I playoffs.
“The score’s real Friday,” Wadl said. “Everybody’s going to see everything we did. It’s just like taking a test.
“We’re OK. I think strength-wise we’re better than last year. We started eight sophomores last year, and they’re all a year older and a year stronger. We’ve got a good group of juniors and a solid group of seniors that have provided more leadership than our seniors did the last couple years. A coach-led team is never a very good team. These guys have to take ownership of the team and hold each other accountable for us to be successful.”
And what about playing at the home of the Cincinnati Bengals?
“If you’ve been around as long as I have, at some point the venue doesn’t really matter to you,” Wadl said. “You just want a field and a couple of sidelines to work from, and we’ll play the game. Really, that’s what it turns into anyway. But I understand it’s a huge deal for the kids.”
St. X, 11-2 last season, is the defending Greater Catholic League South Division champion.
There’s no question the Bombers have talent, but veteran coach Steve Specht said he doesn’t have a clear picture of his team yet.
“We’re trying to figure ourselves out right now … we’ve got to assemble the puzzle,” Specht said. “You try to gauge things by improvement, and I really think we’re getting better. I like this group. They play hard. They just have to grow up.”
The quarterback situations on both sides are interesting.
Senior Jared Kreimer and junior Wyatt Hudepohl are slated to share the QB position for St. X. Hudepohl was 6-of-13 for 49 yards in very limited action last year, while Kreimer was a standout receiver, catching 46 balls for 596 yards and seven touchdowns.
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“We’re different this year than we’ve been the past couple years just because of the turnover in personnel,” Specht said. “We were a quarterback-centric offense the past few years because of Sean Clifford and Chase Wolf. We’re more of a run-centered team this year. We’re bigger up front on the offensive line, we have more experience on the O-line, and we return two of our top three running backs (senior Chris Payne and junior Kellen Newman).”
The Firebirds have gone through a list of QBs over the last year and have settled on senior Manny Pastoriza (6-0, 190). He’s a Lakota Local School District kid who’s been at Elder the last three years and played linebacker for the Panthers in 2017.
Wadl had said that seniors D.J. Christon and Charlie Hall were battling sophomore Caleb Rao for the starting job. What happened? Hall left the program, the idea of going with Rao was scrapped because of his youth, and Christon and Rao may both contribute as wide receivers/defensive backs.
“Manny has emerged as someone who can handle the quarterback position for us,” Wadl said. “We need somebody who can manage the game. Is Manny going to dazzle your eyes with quarterback ability? No, but he’s going to do the little things that we need him to do to execute the offense and keep us in a good position and minimize mistakes.
“We’re not looking for a miracle. We’re looking for a guy that can do what we need him to do, work within our system and kind of act as a bridge from this year to next year.”
West junior David Afari is back after leading the GMC in rushing during the 2017 regular season (188 carries, 1,109 yards, seven TDs).
The Bombers’ defense is led by senior Thomas Kiessling (6-4, 225), who’s recently been moved from linebacker to end. Four starters return in the St. X secondary.
Two Bombers have committed to college programs at this point, Kreimer to Holy Cross and junior offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. (6-7, 287) to Ohio State.
The Firebirds’ commits are senior defensive lineman Steven Faucheux (Purdue) and senior cornerback Jeremiah Ross (Cincinnati).
What: Lakota West (2-8 in 2017) vs. St. Xavier (11-2 in 2017), 7 p.m.
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, 1 Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
Series: St. Xavier leads 1-0, winning 44-3 in the 2006 Division I playoffs