Despite posting a 3-37 record over the last four seasons and totaling just nine victories the past 10 years, Lakewood High School football coach Rex Sponhaltz is excited about his current group of players.
The Lancers lost only three players from a year ago to graduation and return the majority of their starters on both sides of the ball, but it's the attitude and work ethic displayed by the players that has caught Sponhaltz's attention.
"These seniors have watched the football operations for the last three years and they are a tight-knit group," said Sponhaltz, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Thornville Sheridan. "They have gotten together and molded themselves into a group that is tired of losing and they are the only ones who can start the ball rolling again.
"The kids have made up their minds that they are tired of this."
Sponhaltz, who is in his 16th year as a head coach, including his fifth season of his second stint at Lakewood and seventh overall with the Lancers, was encouraged by what he had seen from his players this past offseason.
"I think the biggest gauge a coach has is the kids' work habits in the offseason and it has been a struggle for kids to buy into our weight room and conditioning," he said. "These kids have worked harder than any group I have ever worked with.
"The kids have done what we have asked them to do."
The key for the Lancers to see better results on the field will be to maintain their positive attitude and improved work ethic throughout the season. Last fall, Lakewood finished 1-9, was shut out in five games and was outscored 428-42.
"I'm not sure about wins and losses, but every Friday night our kids are going to be competing and our goal is to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter," Sponhaltz said. "They didn't like what they saw (last season) and the only people that can change this thing are the coaches and the kids."
Leading the way for Lakewood is its most versatile player, 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior Alex Napier. A Division III honorable mention all-district selection last season, he has seen time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver in the Lancers' veer offense. He also is a free safety in the 50 shade defensive alignment.
This fall, Napier is expected to see time at fullback along with senior Brandon Ward, who was the team's leading rusher a year ago. Another senior, Jack Rusher, returns to the H-back/tailback position, while junior wide receiver Zac Holbrook leads a receiving corps that includes classmates Eddy Boerstler and Kaleb Gloyd.
Senior quarterback Austin White is slated to take the majority of snaps under center behind an offensive line that features three returning starters in seniors Cameron Hubble and Trevin Johnson and junior Zach Cozad. Junior Noah Hupp, a transfer from Heath, and sophomore Ryan Caw also are expected to start on the offensive line.
Junior Dalyn Loomis, a special mention all-district selection a year ago, moves from tackle to tight end on offense and anchors the defensive line from his end position. Hubble, an inside linebacker last fall, slides up to the other end position, with Johnson, Caw and senior Jeremy Justice also seeing time on the line.
Senior Brady Watters shifts back to outside linebacker after being on the line last fall. Senior Sam Lowery also is at outside linebacker and Cozad and Hupp will line up at inside linebacker.
Napier and junior Shawn Avery will be among those manning the secondary.
Lakewood has moved from the MSL-Ohio Division to the revived Licking County League.
"I have preached to the kids that we did not score a touchdown in conference play (last season)," Sponhaltz said. "I wanted them to be aware of that. If you go into the Licking County League and play poor defense and don't move the ball on offense, the games will get ugly in a hurry."
Lakewood posted its only victory last season against Northridge, which had been in the MBC but has joined the Lancers in the LCL.
"Every week we take the field, we are facing a monumental challenge to compete with these teams, and we need to hit this thing full throttle and begin to compete right away," Sponhaltz said. "These kids are serious about getting this train back on track. There is no doubt in my mind that I think (we) can compete."