Timeout Football: Rich Lunsford optimistic Lake Station can turn program around
By Steve T. Gorches 314-3797 or firstname.lastname@example.org September 12, 2013 11:14PM
Lake Station football coach Rich Lunsford works with players during practice on Wednesday, September 11, 2013. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 15, 2013 7:26AM
Rich Lunsford knew what he was getting into when he accepted the Lake Station football head coaching position earlier this year.
He had been an assistant for three years under previous head coach Mike Hepp.
And he witnessed four wins from the sidelines.
Taking it back further, the Eagles have 16 wins since 2000, and that includes the 2001 campaign in which five games were played because the Eagles didn’t have enough kids for a team to start the season.
But it’s not like Lake Station’s football program compares to the Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908. It’s just fallen off the face of the region landscape very quickly. The Eagles won both of their sectional titles in the 1990s (1991 and 1998) — the decade when Lunsford was playing football at Lowell.
So he knew what he was getting into and he believes there’s a bright future, even though it seems like the sky is falling at Lake Station.
“It’s a complete challenge,” he said. “These kids have never been taught how to win and compete consistently — every play, every single game — and I’m trying to instill that in them. There’s talent in the building. My offensive coordinator was a varsity assistant at Lowell and he says we have just as much talent as they do, maybe more. Working as a team has been a big problem for these guys the last few years. So our focus the past summer had been team first and family sense. That’s how we were brought up in Red Devil Pride.”
That seems like a pipe dream, but Lowell and Lake Station are more comparable than it seems. The Red Devils only had one more sectional title than the Eagles in the 1990s. Since then, though, it’s been quite the opposite.
Lunsford has truly taken his overwhelming job one step at a time, and there has been progress.
“Last year we finished the season with two freshmen,” he said. “We have 11 this year and we’ve picked up another six or seven more sophomores. The biggest thing I said in my interview was that we would have a JV team. You can’t build a program if you’re making 14-year-old freshmen bang heads with seniors that have been doing it for four years.
“I’ve heard from the kids that some of them didn’t like Coach (Mike) Hepp, but that’s a BS excuse. If you like the sport you’ll come out and play. I did a lot of recruiting in the hallways and talking to kids. I went to a lot of basketball games last year, worked the scoreboard, go to softball games and announce for sectionals — making sure my presence was seen. Playing for Kirk Kennedy, he’d be at everything to make sure his presence was known throughout the community.”
That community support is also comparable to Lowell. The crowds at Lake Station home games is bigger than some 3A, 4A or 5A schools.
“There is a decent amount of support in the community, and I’m trying to improve that,” Lunsford said. “It’s going to be a lot easier when the Ws start coming. They’re starving for success. You saw that with the (boys) basketball program when Bryon Clouse was here and they had a couple 15-, 16-win seasons.”
The kids are starved for success, too. The upperclassmen understand what it’s like to be a football player at Lake Station, and they want to change that perception.
“Coach is making us believe we can do what other teams do,” said senior RB/LB Keith Durbin. “We just have to believe and we don’t want that old Lake Station attitude anymore.”
It just seems like there’s longer odds to overcome at Lake Station than other schools — the proverbial, whatever can go wrong will go wrong dark cloud.
Take senior Robert Fazekas for example. Lunsford said he was the Eagles’ best wide receiver. Pair him with junior running back Kyle Gooch and getting more wins would be a more distinct possibility. But starting quarterback Kody Lemley broke his arm during an intra-squad scrimmage the week before the scheduled scrimmage against Calumet. It’s the first time since Lunsford has been at Lake Station that the program had enough players out to have a scrimmage.
Burt anything that can go wrong, did go wrong with the injury.
“Robert and Kody have a great connection,” Lunsford said. “We’ve been working with Kody as quarterback since he was in eighth grade. He’ll be back in two weeks.”
And that means Fazekas, who has been filling in as QB for the first time in his football career, will get to catch balls again instead of trying to throw them.
“I was pretty nervous being thrown into it, but I think I’ve grasped the position,” he said. “I knew I had to do it for the team.”
That’s the team-first attitude Lunsford has been pushing, and it seems like everyone is catching on, including the standout running back.
“Things have changed a lot,” Gooch said. “Ever since the summer, we’ve grown more closer as a team and family. We’ve got a lot of younger kids coming out who have talent. We just want to get some wins.”
Who doesn’t? A community like Lake Station that supports its football team immensely is hungry for success, which is relative compared to the last 13 years.
“There’s not a ton of risk, but an absolute ton of reward here,” Lunsford said about his job as coach. “If we get a .500 season, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s a good season.’ I think the future is bright.”
With twice as many kids out for the team (36) than finishing on the roster last year (17), the program is moving in the right direction with a coach who has high aspirations.