After enduring a winless season in 2017, the Lakers and their fans finally have something to celebrate. A well-documented offseason of hard work has given way to an electric quarterback powering a well-tuned offense, and an iron-willed defense.
The start is exciting, but may be lost on the veteran members of the team. Winless seasons take their toll and are not easily forgotten, particularly when they serve as the first in a program’s history.
“It just makes me want to keep going,” quarterback Caleb Montgomery said of the start. “Obviously, we didn’t experience anything close to this last year. So the success just makes us want more.”
For many players, finally donning the red and grey at the varsity level is a dream come true. For others on this resurgent team, the journey to Grabinski Field was more complicated as the team failed to impress in recent years.
“I always looked up to my brother and older friends who played,” said defensive back Aleck Frederick. “To finally get up to the varsity level was a great feeling. I was really excited to get my shot.”
The varsity experience Frederick encountered wasn’t exactly equal to the Lakes Eight championship squads he grew up idolizing. Dwindling roster numbers and a new juggernaut conference were not kind to the program and its member's enthusiasm.
“It was just kind of something to do at first,” senior receiver Emmanuel Wilson said.
“I didn’t play freshman and sophomore year,” Verlinde said. “I looked at the small team and just thought, ‘Meh, I’d rather not.’
“Then, Caleb and coach Start got on me to come out, and now, I love it.”
A palpable difference at practice was paramount in changing the team culture, as was the reality of finishing a season winless.
“I think that the effort that the senior class has put in has been a lot different than, at least last year,” Verlinde said. “Just coming into practice ready to work every day and giving it our all makes such a difference.”
“Practice is where the difference is, for sure,” Frederick added. “They were tough and everything last year, but the focus and the energy there this year is totally different.”
That change has paid dividends. Not only in wins, but in confidence and cooperation. From the backfield to downfield, everyone is feeling more equipped to do their jobs in 2018.
“Our line is making great blocks. Caleb is making great reads. It takes a lot of work and effort from everyone in practice to make it work,” said senior running back Mitch Payne. “Our line especially has put the work in.”
“Just knowing that you are going to get somewhere when you run the ball is honestly such a great feeling,” Montgomery said. “It is so, so much better.”
“It feels like I’m going to make the catch, every time,” Wilson said of Montgomery’s deep-ball attempts. “That’s how I feel out there. I’m just not going to drop it. Knowing the work we are all putting in, it helps you not fear anybody.”
That trust has produced a tremendous on-field product for the Spring Lake faithful, only further fueling the hype-train furnace.
“Throughout the season last year, the stands kind of dwindled as people realized that we didn’t have as much talent,” Montgomery said. “The atmosphere is way better this year. Going out there knowing that the fans have faith in you to win makes things so much better.”
“For those people that stuck with us through 0-9 and were there every game, this is for them,” said receiver Noah Verlinde.
“It feels good to give them something to cheer for,” added receiver Emmanuel Wilson. “I like hearing the screams.”
The 2010 season ended with three losses. One came to Fruitport in the midst of a Lakes Eight Conference run and one in the season finale to Coopersville. In the pre-district round of the playoffs, the Lakers ran into Grand Rapids Catholic Central, who ended their season in the opening round of the tournament.
Friday’s Homecoming matchup brings the Broncos to town, who have an all-time record of 9-8 against the Lakers, including an evenly split 4-4 since that fateful 2010 season finale. By the time the now in-conference Catholic Central matchup comes around on Oct. 5, there will be just three games left in the season.
Focus and purpose will be at a premium this week, even for this reinvented team. As Homecoming festivities ramp up at the high school, and the football hype train gathers speed, perspective will be key for the Lakers. They seem to be dialed in.
“We still look at it like we are 3-9,” Verlinde said. “We still have so much to prove. Three games is nothing in the long haul if we don’t win any more. We just have to keep chugging.”