The system is now securely in place, a large junior class has another year of experience and the schedule could be more manageable for Lakewood this fall.

Having a little more luck also wouldn't hurt the Lancers as they look to progress in year three under coach Jason Lee.

In each of the past two seasons, Lakewood's No. 1 running backs went down early in the season with an injury that kept them out for several weeks.

For a program that has endured 17 consecutive losing seasons and a roster that still numbers only in the mid-30s, every bit of depth might make the difference in tight games similar to a year ago -- when they lost to Northridge 23-20 in two overtimes and Utica 28-21 in overtime.

"When it comes to expectations, the accountability is better," Lee said. "The biggest thing for us is believing we can win. It comes to winning those close games. We lost to 10-7 (to Amanda-Clearcreek to open 2017) and then lost overtime and double-overtime games last year. Those are games we have to win to get us to believe we can win. We're playing not to lose instead of playing to win in tight games. Gaining confidence early and staying healthy is key for us."

Helping Lakewood's odds of improving after going 0-10 in 2017 and 1-9 last season is that it opens against five teams with losing records last season. The Lancers start the year Aug. 30 at Warsaw River View, which went 4-6 and replaces 2018 playoff qualifier Amanda-Clearcreek.

Lakewood earned its only win last season over the Landmark Christian Eagles, a club team that is not a part of the OHSAA, but that game has been replaced by a matchup Sept. 6 at home against a Fairfield Union squad that went 3-7.

Wellston also went 3-7 last season and is the opponent Sept. 13 after the Lancers played Division IV playoff-qualifier Bloom-Carroll last season in week 3.

Lee has added John Poulnott as offensive coordinator to go along with defensive coordinator Greg Strouse, and the coaching staff began the summer by coaching the Licking County all-stars to a victory over Muskingum Valley.

"We're a lot farther ahead than we've been the past two years and execution also has been really high this year," senior Connor Vierstra said. "It starts in the summer. As long as we keep the attendance and effort high, that turns into execution which turns into wins."

OFFENSE

According to Lee, Vierstra might best be described as a "linebacker playing offense."

Vierstra is a senior quarterback who completed 125 of 224 passes for 1,522 yards with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

He also rushed for 447 yards and three touchdowns, but Lakewood was limited to 2.7 yards per carry and 778 total yards on the ground. Peyton Morrison, a 2019 graduate who was expected to be the primary ball-carrier, missed all but three games with injury.

Senior Connor Roesink is a Newark Catholic transfer who figures to boost the running game.

Senior Zach Crist is another newcomer who has good speed according to Lee and also will carry the ball.

"I've loved it," Roesink said. "The guys have been super nice to me and I love the program. We have a chance to win some games."

Zeb Mansker and Colt Vierstra, who is Connor Vierstra's brother, are among the top players in a 15-member junior class and will line up at wide receiver. Mansker finished with 25 receptions and Colt Vierstra added 16 catches last season.

Noah Sniadach, who is another in a six-member senior class, had seven receptions and should see time at H-back and slot receiver. Junior Ryan Ogilbee will serve as a possession receiver.

Juniors Ryan Hammon and Brandon Peters are returning regulars on the offensive line.

DEFENSE

The addition of Roesink also should benefit a defense led by Connor Vierstra and Ogilbee at outside linebacker and Sniadach at middle linebacker.

Connor Vierstra led the Lancers in tackles with 56 and added three interceptions, Sniadach had 37 tackles and Ogilbee added 26 tackles.

Colt Vierstra is the returning starter at free safety after finishing with 51 tackles and one interception. Expected to be at cornerback are sophomore Branden Allen, who was a part-time starter last season, and senior Alex Pletcher.

On the line, Hammon and junior Trace Ford will be on the interior and Mansker and junior Kevin Haines will be at end.

"One of the things we want to do is give (Connor Vierstra) a break on defense," Lee said. "Connor hasn't really had a breather the last two years. If he's fresh on offense, it'll help with the reduction of some of the mistakes he made with turnovers. That kid gives you everything you could ask for."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Pletcher returns at kicker after making 17 extra points.

Roesink was the long snapper for Newark Catholic and likely will fill that role for the Lancers.

Mansker returned 10 kickoffs and Allen returned seven last season, and both also served as punt returners.

THE LINEUP

Offense

Quarterbacks: *Connor Vierstra (sr., 6-5, 210), Branden Allen (so., 5-11, 140), Connor Roesink (sr., 5-10, 180)

Running backs: *Zach Crist (sr., 5-11, 185), *Roesink, Colin Hawes (jr., 6-0, 165), Josh Hicks (fr., 5-10, 150), Josh Taylor (fr., 5-7, 147), Robby Taylor (jr., 5-10, 185)

Wide receivers: *Zeb Mansker (jr., 6-0, 205), *Colt Vierstra (jr., 6-2, 170), Ryan Ogilbee (jr., 6-0, 185), Matt Smith (fr., 6-1, 165)

H-Back/tight ends: *Noah Sniadach (sr., 6-2, 205), Mansker, Ogilbee

Linemen: *Trace Ford (jr., 6-4, 260), *Kevin Haines (jr., 6-0, 215), *Ryan Hammon (jr., 6-0, 275), *Brandon Peters (jr., 5-8, 215), Jake Cassidy (jr., 6-0, 210), Mark Waters (so., 5-9, 195)

Defense

Linemen: *Ford, *Haines, *Hammon, *Mansker, Cassidy, Josiah Ellinger (so., 6-0, 210), Robby Taylor

Linebackers: *Ogilbee, *Roesink, *Sniadach, *Connor Vierstra

Secondary: *Allen, *Alex Pletcher (sr., 5-7, 145), *Colt Vierstra, Crist, Colt Flowers (jr., 6-1, 150), Hawes, Roesink

Special teams

Kicker: *Pletcher

Punters: *Ogilbee, Hawes

Returners: *Allen, *Crist, Hicks, Mansker, Colt Vierstra

Long snapper: *Roesink

(*Denotes projected starter)

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek