August 1, 2014

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High school football: Avon Lake expects success to continue under Laird

AVON LAKE — At Dave Dlugosz’s retirement dinner this summer, Larry Laird was asked to come forward to say a few words.

“What in the world am I getting myself into,” he asked the crowd of present and former players, parents, fans and fellow coaches. Laird was one of Dlugosz’s assistants at Avon Lake. This year, the roles reverse.

Laird takes over from Dlugosz but will have the former coach on staff coaching the linebackers and linemen. Laird, who was Dlugosz’s offensive coordinator, follows a legendary career that included 200 coaching victories, a state championship, a
runner-up finish, 15 playoff appearances and 18 conference crowns.

But Dlugosz didn’t leave the cupboard bare. In fact, the Shoremen return 16 lettermen off last year’s Division I playoff and SWC co-championship team, including just about the entire defensive unit. With the new playoff format this year, Avon Lake is in Division II.

“I haven’t noticed any change to be honest,” senior tight end/defensive end Kyle Kuhar said. “We have so much experience coming back. We should be very good.”

“If there’s any change at all, it’s that we’re running more sprints this year,” returning quarterback David Winkel said with a smile.

Avon Lake is one of those programs that seem to reload each year rather than rebuild. Seniors always step up when it’s their turn. Even with the change at the top, the Shoremen are primed for another great run.

One player Avon Lake will be hard-pressed to replace is Jimmy Hessel, who led the team with 984 receiving yards and nine interceptions on defense. He was also a threat as the team’s kick and punt returner.

“We have a very talented group,” said Laird, who led Medina to the playoffs in 2010.
“We have to develop some depth but the transition has gone really well. We have 26 seniors on the team, so I’d like to think we have 26 captains. I’m a firm believer you go as your seniors go.”

Don’t expect Laird to deviate much from what has been arguably the best football program in the county over the past few decades.

“We’ll have a run-first philosophy,” Laird said. “We can run a lot of plays out of our running sets. With Dave on board, I couldn’t ask for a better situation. You’re only as good as your assistants.”

Winkel is back along with Kuhar and backs Collin Lucas and Wyatt Ohm. All four are seniors. Winkel threw for better than 1,700 yards last year and 22 touchdowns. Kuhar caught four touchdown passes while Ohm and Lucas combined for over 1,700 yards on the ground and 21 touchdowns with Ohm leading the way with 1,024 yards.

“It’s still Shoremen football,” said Lucas, who also played linebacker last season.
“Wyatt and I split the carries. He probably ran it a little more than I did. It worked out well and kept us both fresh.”

“It’s still run first,” Winkel said. “As seniors, we’re taking on the leadership responsibilities. Like Coach Laird said, every single senior is a captain. I feel like I need to be more of a leader. The younger guys look up to us as examples.”

Avon Lake lost two regular-season games a year ago — dropping an early-season 54-47 double-overtime shootout to Massillon Jackson and a 28-21 loss to Westlake that cost the Shoremen the outright SWC championship. Avon Lake lost in the first round of the Division I playoffs to eventual state runner-up Toledo Whitmer.

“Against Jackson, we were up 37-13 and felt like we had the game in control but it got away from us,” Laird said. “Westlake and the SWC overall has really improved. There are great rivalries and you have to be ready to play every week. Berea and Midpark have consolidated and should be very, very good. Next year we get Avon, Midview and Lakewood coming in.”

The goals are always the same at Avon Lake. Win the first game, win the conference and go to the playoffs.

“Every year,” Kuhar said. “That’s our goal. That’s Shoremen football.”

Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or at timothygeb@msn.com.