September 15, 2014

Elyria
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High school football Week 1: Avon Lake has plenty of punch in its line

A deep bomb or a breakaway touchdown run will always get a high school football crowd on its feet, while the pancake block or huge hole that was opened to allow such a play barely gets noticed.

It’s for that reason, that it takes a special kind of athlete with a unique kind of mentality to finally give in to his coach’s wishes and line up in the underappreciated role of offensive lineman.

At Avon Lake, there’s a waiting list for the position.

“Immediately when I see those guys that have potential as an offensive lineman, I get my claws into them real early,” Shoremen coach Dave Dlugosz said. “I start to work with them, developing that atmosphere that says, ‘You guys are going to be special, and you’re going to be a key part of our football team.’”

Dlugosz, who was an offensive lineman during his playing days for the Shoremen, will probably have plenty of eyes on his offensive line this season. Two players have already signed to play Division I college football next year — tackle Christian Pace is headed to Michigan and tight end Dan Schneider is going to Pitt — while junior tight end Brian Mihalik has already received a scholarship offer from West Virginia.

Add those three to Adam Schneid, who’s playing for Central Michigan this year, and that’s four Division I players at the same position from one high school program in three seasons.

“The guys we have getting those Division I scholarships, they have a tremendous work ethic; they have very good leadership ability; and they are kids that are going to be pulling along our underclassmen,” Dlugosz said.

The veteran coach believes the effort the varsity players put into inspiring the Avon Lake youth league and middle school players might be one of the things that sets his program apart from others in the area.

“Our older guys want to be able to come back after they graduate and say, ‘Yep, I helped this kid out when he was a fourth-grader in football camp. I remember him,’” Dlugosz said.

It’s a cyclical effort, too, as many of the current varsity players’ interest in becoming Shoremen began at a very early age.

“I first started coming to games probably in second grade, and it was around sixth or seventh grade when I started to really understand how good the football I was watching every week really was,” Schneider said.

“When I was in fifth grade, my brother was a freshman in high school, and we started going to every game, even the away ones,” Pace said.

The pair’s eyes probably widened watching the tailback break loose around the end for a huge gain, or a perfectly thrown spiral fall into the hands of a streaking receiver, but not when an Avon Lake lineman drove a defender into the turf.

“Nobody wants to be a lineman, everyone wants to get the ball,” Pace said. “But when you’re younger and you’re one of the biggest guys in the group, that’s what you become. When you get older, you realize you’ve got to be athletic to do it, too.”

Not many are as athletic as the group the Shoremen are putting on the field this season. If you don’t believe it, just ask one of the beneficiaries of their efforts.

“These guys come out every day and put in the work,” tailback Mike Mansnerus said. “As soon as the season’s over, they get back in the weight room and start working on getting bigger and quicker and stronger.

“They make my job a heck of a lot easier.”

Mansnerus said there’s always room to run behind the powerful bodies in front of him, and when the unit executes its blocks to perfection, holes are created that would make the Grand Canyon jealous.

“Sometimes they are just so big, if you can’t run through them you’re just not very good,” Mansnerus said.

The results have become commonplace for Avon Lake, mainly because the linemen’s extreme training efforts and work ethic have become routine behavior.

“We work them to the bone,” Dlugosz said. “We just grind them up and work and work and work, and part of the pride is they look over their shoulders at the wide receivers playing catch and getting hit with shields and they all say, ‘I’d much rather be down here grunting it out then up there with those guys.’

“They’ve developed their own spirit, where they know they are going to be the hardest workers on the football team.”

It’s exactly what Dlugosz envisioned when putting his program together years ago. The offensive line was half of his early equation for success.

“When I looked at developing our football program, what we wanted to do was put our best athletes on defense, and then we needed a strong offensive line,” he said. “That way you can control the football — three and out (from your defense), then a good 12-play drive … there’s nothing better than that.”

Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or sbennett@chroniclet.com.