|Richard Tucker, who led the county in passing yards in 2011, passes the football during a Lower Lake High School practice in Lower Lake, Calif. Photo by Rich Mellott.|
This week’s Fall Football Preview will feature the county’s high school teams as they get ready for the upcoming season. The series starts with the Lower Lake High Trojans.
LOWER LAKE, Calif. – For a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007, the mood at Lower Lake’s practice sessions last week was surprisingly upbeat. For a team that didn’t win a game last year, the Trojans appeared convincingly confident.
Before heading out the gymnasium door for three and a half hours of drills in the sweltering summer heat, several players were discussing how they couldn’t wait to get another shot at those teams that had their way with them last year, like Hoopa Valley, which beat the Trojans, 54-0, and Middletown, which tagged them with a 35-0 loss.
No one was vowing to even the score, mind you; it was more like anticipating “the opportunity” – a popular term at the Lower Lake camp this summer.
“We expect a lot of improvement,” said Jerald Drummond, the senior running back and safety. “Other teams are going to improve, too. But if we work hard, we have an opportunity to achieve something this season.”
For a few seconds there, you had to wonder what second-year head coach Mike Huffman was slipping into the Gatorade. Whatever it was, his players were obviously lapping it up.
Or maybe offensive coordinator Justin Gaddy, whose Facebook page is brimming with words of inspiration and team spirit, had somehow incorporated some Norman Vincent Peale into his veer option playbook, mixing in some power of positive thinking with the Trojans’ power running game.
Seriously, though, isn’t this the same group that went 0-9-1 last season, managing only a tie with Cloverdale?
In large part, it is. And that’s one of the reasons Lower Lake is projecting a different kind of vibe this summer, the poised and business-like demeanor of a group that’s survived some tough times together, and now believes that some day soon, those hard-knock lessons are going to start paying dividends.
“We were young and inexperienced last year,” Huffman said. “This year we’re the opposite.”
Lower Lake returns six starters on offense, led by Drummond, who rushed for over 600 yards last season, quarterback Richard Tucker, who led the county with over 1200 passing yards, and 240-pound center Mike Warren, who anchors the line.
Also back is receiver Thomas Cross, whose 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame should provide Tucker with a large and mobile target.
Cross demonstrated his athleticism last winter when he emerged as the league’s top wrestler in his weight class – and among the best in the section.
Billy Martin also adds size and experience to the offensive line, which could be the most improved part of the team.
“We were small in the line last year and it was hard to get our running game going,” Huffman said. “We ended up having to pass a lot. Our line should be bigger and better this season on both sides of the ball.”
Especially if sophomore Willie Isaacs, up from last year’s 6-4 JV team, can make a sudden impact on the varsity. At 6-3, 292 pounds, he’s one of those athletic anomalies in Lake County, a kid who, at age 15 and without any varsity experience, already has some folks believing he’s a legitimate college prospect. Maybe even a Division I (large school) prospect.
“Willie has the size and he has the heart (to play Division I),” Huffman said.
Most of the standouts on offense play key roles on a Trojan defense that returns eight starters.
Tucker, Cross and Drummond are fixtures in the secondary and Warren and Martin bring some heft to the heart of the line. You have to figure Isaacs, with the size to clog up a lot running lanes, will get some “D” time as well.
“He’s a throw-back – a country boy with a great work ethic,” Huffman said of his prize sophomore.
The Lower Lake coaching staff is also a “throw-back” of sorts – to the Trojan teams of the mid-’90s that regularly competed for league titles. Nearly all of the coaches are Lower Lake alumni.
Huffman, Gaddy and linebacker/receivers coach Ed Fuchs played for coaching legend Gordon Sadler’s last team at Lower Lake in 1995. The following year, under first-year coach Bill Cox, they won a league championship.
|The Lower Lake High School football team is getting an infusion of new enthusiasm thanks to its coaching staff. Photo by Rich Mellott.|
Huffman was an all-league lineman who, knowing he lacked the size to play college ball (at least as a lineman), opted for the Army.
Two years after graduating from high school, he was driving a tank in Kosovo as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force.
When he came home he went to work at his alma mater, supervising the high school facilities. He also was quick to get back into football, assisting on the high school staff and connecting with the youth program.
When he took over the Trojan program last summer, he knew the job would be a challenge. He came on in late August and didn’t have an off-season program to get his players on the same page. The team spent the first part of the season playing catch-up.
About five games into the campaign, Huffman began to see improvement. “We started being competitive,” he said.
The natural ebb and flow of talent is a big part of small-school football, and with the exception of the powerhouse Middletown program, Lake County’s teams have had their shares of ups and downs over the past decade.
Lower Lake’s football fortunes have been on the ebb for a couple years. But the staff is determined to bring some continuity back to the program – Huffman says he and his coaches are in it for the long-haul. In the meantime, they’re channeling new energy – and a new attitude.
If you’re part of Lower Lake football, there is no room gloom. There are only “opportunities” waiting to be seized.
Unlike some head coaches who work off-campus, Huffman is there every day, along assistant coach Gary Logoteta, another Trojan alumnus who also works as a campus supervisor.
“We help the vice principal with discipline and campus control and safety,” Huffman said. “We have the opportunity to talk with all the kids and help them anyway we can.”
His job as head coach, he explains, “is about recruiting, staying involved with the youth programs; it’s about changing the culture, which means getting everyone involved. We try to get everyone to play. We don’t cut anyone. We look at it as an opportunity to teach the game.”
Players know the Huffman code, which isn’t only partly about football; it’s about 1) doing the right thing; 2) treating others the way you want to be treated; and 3) giving maximum effort all the time.
Everything else, he believes, will take care of itself, including the team’s only goal: “We want to play for the league championship every year,” he said – a lofty goal this year in what promises to be a competitive NCL I race.
But you know the players are relishing the opportunity.
Tomorrow: The Kelseyville Knights prepare for the coming season.
Rich Mellott can be reached at email@example.com .
Lower Lake Trojans
Coach/Record: Mike Huffman (2nd year), 0-9-1.
Assistants: Justin Gaddy, Ed Fuchs, Scott Benefield, Troy Dahneke.
Last year: 0-9-1.
Offense: Veer option.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 8 on defense.
Top players: QB/S Richard Tucker, C/NG Mike Warren, WR-CB Thomas Cross (6-2, 195), RB/S Jerald Drummond (5-9, 145), OL/DL Billy Martin.
Keep an eye on: Sophomore lineman Willie Isaacs, up from the junior varsity, whom Huffman believes has the size (6-3, 292 lbs.) work ethic and potential to play Div. I college ball. Another stat Huffman likes: Isaacs’ 2.78 GPA.
Key games: Though they’ll be big underdogs in their season-opener at Hoopa Valley, how the Trojans hold up against the Div. V section power could be an early indicator of what to expect this season. The Warriors rolled to a 55-0 win in last year’s opener … The NCL contest against Fort Bragg (5-5 ) at home on Sept. 5 could be another tell-tale contest around which a successful season might hinge.