BY DAN STICKRADT
Unlike any other year, Lake Orion kicked off football training camp for the first time as the defending state champions. After years of near-misses, the Dragons finished the year 2010 on top of the charts.
Lake Orion captured its first D-1 crown last November behind a talented senior class. Dozens of those athletes are gone. That was last year and the Dragons do not want to rest on their laurels.
Senior quarterback Sean Charette, who missed the final 2.5 games of the postseason last year with a foot injury, is a four-year starter and is quick to remind the Dragons that this is a new year.
“I don’t see a Zach Zott out here again or I’m not seeing Cole Schaenzer,” said Charette. “I’m seeing new faces, a new line and a new defense. We’re a brand new group of kids and a brand new team. We’re just excited to get back out here and get started.”
Optimism never runs higher than in the second week of August. Monday was the first day that member schools of the Michigan High School Athletic Association could begin football practice. All other fall sports commence Wednesday morning.
Lake Orion’s players were excited of a new sign placed along Stadium Drive west of the school’s athletics stadium. That team will never be forgotten. But the Dragons must replace 18 starters if they are going to post another winning season, make the playoffs and venture on another long run in the postseason.
Yet with nearly 220 players in the program, the Dragons will find way to reload.
“We have some good young talent in the program that didn’t start last year,” said veteran coach Chris Bell. “Our JV was 8-1 and we had two freshmen teams. There are some good players there. In some cases, we could actually be better than we were in last year. We just don’t have the experience right now.”
Still, the hunger for another grand season is always there in Lake Orion. The 2008 season ended at Ford Field with a state runner-up trophy and with the state title last season.
“You’ve been there and you know what that’s like,” said Bell, whose team last failed to make the postseason in 2000. “It’s the drive to get back there and get it again. It’s just like the playoffs. When a team makes the playoffs and realizes what a great atmosphere it is, now that becomes the goal. Our kids have been to Ford Field. That’s the goal now. Anything short of that is a disappointment.”
Lake Orion, like many teams throughout the www.northoaklandsports.com coverage area and around the state are prepping for the first week of the season with games beginning Aug. 25-27.
Losing was like a disease at Rochester.
For 10 straight years, the Falcons suffered through the pains of losing seasons — again and again. The whole boys athletics program suffered greatly, as a lack of depth in all sports started to mount.
Last year Rochester’s football program shattered a decade-old hex, going 6-3 in the regular season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Although the Falcons out-grained Utica Eisenhower, they still succumbed to the Eagles. A seed was still planted in the program, the attitude of winning.
There is more hope on the horizon.
“It took a couple of years to get here, but we turned it around last season. I knew we had athletes,” said Erik Vernon, who is in his third season as head coach. “The seniors now are used to winning. They were undefeated as freshmen. They were 6-3 as sophomores and we were 6-3 on varsity last season. We have some very good athletes again. I think we’ll surprise some people. But I also understand that’s what everyone says at this time of year.”
Rochester has a handful of college prospects and again Vernon has several two- and three-sport athletes on his roster, much like last year. He is also an assistant wrestling coach and also served as an assistant track coach at the school for three years. His revived football program is reaping the benefits.
“We have some tough kids,” added Vernon. “I really like some of our sophomores and we have some very good seniors. Some of these kids didn’t start because of what we had in last year’s senior class. But they’ll have their turn this season.”
Senior Kurt Apostal, one of the better linemen in the OAA Red Division, is excited for the chance to add onto the Falcons’ momentum.
“We worked so hard last season to get to the playoffs. I think we now know what it takes,” he said. “As seniors, we have to step up and show the younger guys what it takes. That is our goal — to get to the playoffs and make a run (in the state tournament).”
Rochester has never won a postseason game in four trips.
For 14 straight years, Rochester Adams has seen its name appear in the postseason brackets. Few programs across the state can say that.
For the Highlanders, there’s only three returning starters in the whole group this season. Plus the anomaly bug has bitten, as there are only around 32 players on the varsity at the present time.
With many question marks and lower than usual numbers, the pressure will be on quarterback Tony Annese and his fellow senior Highlanders to keep the tradition going forward.
“We don’t want to be that class to break the streak and not go to the playoffs. We have to keep the streak alive,” said Annese, who also plays safety and recently gave an oral commitment to Division I Central Michigan University. “We have some talented players, but not a lot of experience. We’re going to have to step up and lead.”
Adams plays in the brutally-tough OAA White Division, which figures to be one of the large-school conferences in Michigan this autumn. The task for Adams will not be easy.
“I know we can do it,” said Annese. “We have some good players. We just have to go out there and prove it.”
Oxford began its first week at the earliest possible minute. The Wildcats walked onto to their new state-of-the-art blue turf field 10 minutes before midnight on Sunday night. As soon as the clock hit 12:01 a.m., veteran coach Bud Rowley blew his whistle.
Being the first blue turf on a high school field in the country, media interest was high. Even Sports Illustrated coaxed some free-lance photographers to attend the event.
Oxford was one of the few Class A and Class B schools in Oakland County not to have turf until now.
Even with some 400 or so fans in attendance to celebrate the Midnight Madness, Rowley was quick to remind that his Wildcats did not reach expectations in 2010. After 28 straight winning seasons, Oxford dipped to 3-6 last season.
“That’s not acceptable,” admitted Rowley. “But it’s the head guy’s fault. I take the blame for that. I didn’t do my job. The (assistant) coaches and I talked about all of that.”
Oxford returns most of its team from last year, plus two Division I college prospects in Colin Goetz and Prescott Line. There is an exceptional freshman class this year at Oxford, some that could crack the varsity lineup, a rarity for large-school football.
“We have to be better,” said Goetz. “I know the guys don’t want to go through that again.”
Oxford joined the OAA White Division last year after 27 school years in the Flint Metro League. The Wildcats are expected to finish in the top half of the loaded OAA-White, which includes defending Division 2 state champion Farmington Harrison, Adams, Southfield and Farmington, all playoff teams last year, plus Rochester Stoney Creek and Oak Park, which is expected to be one of the state’s more improved teams in 2011.
ROCHESTER HILLS LUTHERAN NORTHWEST
Winning league championships used to be a tall tale, a fable, a clouded dream at Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the Crusaders’ football program was door mat.
Winning seasons, or just winning games, were not that common.
Northwest finally reached the playoffs in 1999 and again in 2004, showing signs of life. The past three years, the Crusaders have won three straight league titles — the first time in school history that has happened — and Northwest is favored again this season in the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference.
The Crusaders are also gunning for their fourth straight postseason appearance.
“We’re going to be a lot better this year,” said Northwest coach Don Justice, who is in his eighth season at the helm. “Last year we were kind of young. We beat some teams that I wasn’t sure we would beat. But our guys were tough and we ended up tying for the league and made the playoff again.
“I think we can do it again,” added Justice. “We have a lot of guys back and a lot of these guys are stronger than they were last season. I remember we started some guys last season due to injuries. We didn’t have a choice. Those same kids came back and worked their (tales) off in the offseason to get better. I think we might be farther along this year than we were last year.”
Troy football was a bubble team last season. Like many basketball teams on Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament, the Colts had their bubble burst last October when the MHSAA had its own rendition of Selection Sunday for prep football.
Going 5-4, Troy missed one of the few at-large berths for the postseason by only a couple of points.
“Last year we just didn’t get better,” admitted veteran coach Gary Griffith. “We came out and looked very good against Romeo in our opener. After that we were up-and-down. We need to get better as the season moves along and last year I don’t think we did.”
Troy lost several of its skilled athletes but return many of its linemen on both sides of the ball. The boys doing the dirty work in the trenches will shoulder the load and help Troy become not only a more consistent team this season, but perhaps a playoffs team as well.
“That’s always the goal,” smiled Griffith. “Will we get there? We’ll see how hard we work. If we work hard, then we’ll put ourselves in a position to get better and win some games. Getting to six wins is the goal. All we need is six.”
Six wins. That’s the goal across the state. Who will get there and who will fall short? That’s what we’ll learn over the next three months.
Prep football is back and optimism has never been higher.
To submit information to www.northoaklandsports.com, e-mail email@example.com. To advertise, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow us on Twitter @LocalSportsFans and more than a dozen other social media networks.
Category: Auburn Hills Avondale, Auburn Hills Oakland Christian, Clarkston, Clarkston Everest Catholic, High School, High School (M-Z), Holly, Lake Orion, Ortonville Brandon, Oxford, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, Prep Wraps, Rochester, Rochester Adams, Rochester Hills Lutheran NW, Rochester Stoney Creek, Troy, Troy Athens, Troy Christian Leadership Acadamy