Lapeer closes in another 9-0 season; coaches, players bond together to make consolidation work
Lapeer – The animosity has been replaced by comradery at Lapeer High School.
Since East and West high schools merged in 2014 to form one high school, many barriers have been lifted in the community resulting in the creation of one football program that has brought renewed excitement.
Coach Mike Smith must be given much of the credit for the smooth transition. He coached West for 30 seasons, 16 as head coach, and worked diligently to keep the focus on team, not individuals.
“There’s no more dividing line in the community, no more this side of town, that side of town, East versus West, we’re all one and that cohesion is reaping benefits for us on the football field and off,” Smith said. “Some people out there thought it wouldn’t come together like this, that the old mentality of us-and-against them, would creep in and hinder the new program. But it hasn’t and that’s because these kids are all about football. They quickly learned that out about one another and bonded quickly over that. Now, it’s like these guys have all been friends for years, that’s how they act.”
Success on the field came immediately. The Lightning has yet to lose a regular season game. They’re 8-0 this season going into Friday’s game at Davison. Last season they were 10-1 before losing to eventual Division 1 champion Clarkston 23-20 in a district final.
Lapeer has posted four shutouts this season and is averaging 35 points a game. Its average margin of victory has been more than four touchdowns a game and the Lightning wrapped up their second consecutive Saginaw Valley Red Division title last week with a rare narrow victory, sneaking by Flint Carman-Ainsworth, 21-14.
Smith said the mentality of togetherness and putting their differences aside began at the coaching-staff level and trickled on down.
Even though Jake Weingartz, the former head coach at East, wasn’t selected to head the Lightning program, he gladly accepted Smith’s invitation to be his offensive coordinator.
“When we combined coaching staffs, there were no egos, everybody immediately began working towards a common goal,” Smith said. “As we meshed as coaches, the kids saw that and started to do that themselves as players. We all grew together, that made the process a lot easier for all of us.”
Before the merger, West played the role of big brother in the city’s rivalry. East qualified for the playoffs five times with its best seasons taking place in 2002 and ’04 when it finished 9-2.
West was a power in the Flint Metro League. In its final 12 seasons the Panthers made the playoffs 10 times. In 2000 West reached the Division 3 semifinals and ’95 it won the Class A title.
“We’re getting contributions from kids that played at East and West, that’s shows how well the two programs have blended,” Smith said. “Our best players are our leaders and a bunch of newcomers have really stepped up and answered the call. They’re in a groove. Everyone’s on the same page.”
Lapeer has 26 seniors and two of those, quarterback Eli Hunt, a three-year starter, and hard-running tailback Mike Marston, contribute greatly to the success. Hunt started at East as a sophomore. Marston, a transfer from Goodrich, has rushed for 1,410 yards this season. He had 135 yards and two touchdowns against Carman-Ainsworth. Hunt is approaching 1,200 passing yards.
On defense, senior lineman Dan Perry, who committed to Michigan for wrestling, and sophomore linebacker Sam Kinney each have over 70 tackles and fuel a pesky unit.
“Prior to the merger,” Hunt said. “Everyone was saying we would have problems, people fighting, not getting along, it’s been the exact opposite though. We’ve put the rivalry and all that stuff behind us. We’re a family, we’re all brothers. We watch each other’s backs now.”