Kevin Goheen reports:
Larry Cox likes to look at the first three games of the high school season as preseason contests for his Lakota West program. While the comparison to an NFL schedule isn’t fully equivalent – these first games all actually count – Mason’s Brian Castner can relate to Cox’s belief.
“You can smell it. It’s a neat feeling and the kids can feel it,” said Castner.
With their non-league games past them, Lakota West and Mason meet Friday night at Lakota West in each team’s Greater Miami Conference opener.
“When the league starts, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the GCL or GMC or any league you can smell it in the air,” said Castner.
Lakota West, which is off to its first 3-0 start since 2006, is ranked No. 5 in this week’s Enquirer Division I area coaches’ poll, while Mason (2-1) is ranked No. 10.
Mason has had to replace 17 starters from last season’s playoff team and is starting sophomore Rodney Hutchinson at quarterback. Senior running back Darryl Johnson leads the GMC with 543 yards rushing while the defense, led by senior linebacker Andrew Hauser, has held opponents to just 16 points in three games.
Lakota West is averaging 38.3 points per game, led by junior running Mikel Horton (436 yards rushing) and junior quarterback Malik Grove (303 yards passing).
Cox is in his 16th season at Lakota West. He has led the program since its inception and the Firebirds have never had three consecutive losing seasons. They were 3-7 each of the last two seasons.
“We’ve got some athleticism, more than we’ve had in the past and I think the kids are playing with a little bit of confidence but that’s also a double-edged sword,” said Cox. “You want them to play with confidence but you don’t want them to be cocky. You’ve got to temper that success with reality. We always talk to the kids about that in everything we do and it’s the hardest thing to teach a high school kid.”
Lakota West has beaten La Salle, Glen Este and Anderson to start its season. Mason has wins against Lancaster and Glen Este following a 10-7 loss to undefeated Springboro in its opener.
Hutchinson is growing into his role as quarterback. Johnson is the lone returning starter on offense and the Comets lost two quarterbacks before the season started. Hutchinson has stepped in and played well, according to Castner.
“The first game against Springboro, he had a very solid night. He didn’t lose us the game, he didn’t win us the game but he did what he needed to do. He did his job,” said Castner. “The last couple of weeks he’s trying to make some progress in certain areas and he’s still progressing, still maturing.”
Lakota West has been more balanced offensively, although he rushing attack behind and offensive line that features seniors Ben Pendery (6-2, 295) and Kyle Meadows (6-5, 270) is at the forefront. Horton (6-2, 225) is more of a downhill style while sophomore Kole Gentry and senior Eric Ellis have worked into the rotation with more speed.
“They bring different things to the table so I feel really good about our depth in that respect,” said Cox. “This is going to be a nip-and-tuck ball game. It’s going to be tight.”