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Lapeer schools merge; football power emerges

Football   | Bill Khan

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LAPEER — When the rivalry ended, it ended for good.
Coaches and players agree that there was no carryover from the crosstown football rivalry between Lapeer East and Lapeer West when the two schools merged this fall to form Lapeer High School.
Any disappointment over the merger was put aside as the newly named Lightning went about the business of beginning a new tradition in Lapeer.
"At first I thought it was going to be rough, because obviously we're playing with our rivals, but it ended up being smooth," said senior Jon Currie, a tight end and defensive lineman who played at West last season. "The coaches helped out a lot with setting up open gyms and team-building things. The process went really well, actually."
Through seven weeks of the season, things couldn't have been more perfect for the Lapeer football team.
The offseason program went incredibly well, as former rivals bonded into a cohesive unit. Then the players hit the field and romped through their first seven opponents by a combined score of 355-20.
But only the rarest of teams get through an entire season without facing adversity.
In order to main their perfect record, the Lightning staged dramatic comebacks to beat Flint Carman-Ainsworth and Romeo in two of their last three games.
The Lightning trailed 2013 Division 1 semifinalist Carman-Ainsworth by 14 points with four minutes remaining before rallying to win 34-31 in overtime on Oct. 17.
In the Division 1 playoff opener last Friday, Romeo took a 13-10 lead with 1:45 remaining and added a safety 13 seconds later. Lapeer recovered an onside kick and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 37 seconds remaining, tacking on an interception return for a score with one second left to make it a 23-15 final.
"Things went just a little too perfect for a while," said Lapeer coach Mike Smith, who was the coach at West. "That's never too good when you get in the tournament. I had a 9-0 team that didn't have a close game throughout. We had one in the tournament and didn't react well. That aspect is good, but we know we have to play better than we did (against Romeo)."
A Lapeer team with hopes of winning the state championship will have to get through last year's champion when the Lightning visit Clarkston at 7 p.m. Friday. Clarkston (10-0) has won 23 straight games since losing last year's season opener to Rochester Adams.
"The state championship is going to go through Clarkston," Smith said. "Here they are."
Clarkston entered the season as a known quantity, among the favorites to win the Division 1 championship.
But who are these guys from Lapeer and where did they come from?
West has been a perennial playoff qualifier, making the postseason in 15 of the last 21 seasons and winning the 1995 Class A championship. The Panthers made the playoffs at 8-1 last year before losing 10-7 to Linden in a Division 2 pre-district.
East, best known as the alma mater of 2008 No. 1 overall draft pick Jake Long, was 5-4 last season, missing the playoffs for the second year in a row after making it the previous two.
"We knew we had talent across the board on the defensive and offensive side, but we didn't expect to blow out teams like we did," said junior quarterback Eli Hunt, who started at East last season. "We didn't have any fights or anything like that. It was just pretty simple. Winning helped a lot."
"We knew that East had what we would've needed for our senior year and we had a lot of what they would've needed," Currie said. "We were pretty confident, but to be sitting here 10-0, the whole community is surprised, but everyone is behind us at the same time."
East had an enrollment of 1,113 last year, while West had an enrollment of 1,063. With 2,112 students, the new school outgrew the Flint Metro League and joined the Saginaw Valley Conference.
The last time Lapeer had a unified high school was in 1974. That football team also went 9-0, but it was one year before the playoff system began. West occupied the old Lapeer High building the following year, while East was created in a new high school is the current Lapeer High building. The old Lapeer High won its final 14 games, giving the town a 24-game winning streak when it has only one high school.
One thing that helped foster team unity was the fact Lapeer's middle schools have a north-south boundary, meaning many future East and West students were together from sixth through eighth grades.
"All of the East and West kids were playing together throughout their seventh- and eighth-grade years in football, so obviously that helped merge the gap," said offensive coordinator Jake Winegartz, who was the head coach at East. "They played little league football. They all knew each other. Even the last couple of years when East and West were playing, the rivalry was not like it used to be. It used to be pretty intense. There was no love lost for either team. As the years went on, the kids actually got to know each other and played with each other in middle school. It wasn't as heated as in years previous."
The coaches began organizing the future Lapeer High players while they were students at East and West.
"It really started last January when we started doing some workouts together," Smith said. "We've got a bunch of guys who are dedicated to football. We kept growing and growing as a team. As far as team chemistry and how we get along, it's been awesome all year."
Like the high school, the town is finally unified in its support for high school football.
"It's a whole new experience," Hunt said. "We never had crowds that big besides for the East-West game. Every home game now is just like the East-West game. It's a great atmosphere."
The new football program put itself on the map by traveling 111 miles to Mount Pleasant and trouncing the Oilers, 63-0. This is a Mount Pleasant team that is 7-3 and in the second round of the Division 3 playoffs, qualifying for the postseason for the 10th time in 12 years.
Lapeer had instant street cred.
"In our previous games, we were blowing out teams and no one was giving us any credit," Hunt said. "We got up early on them in the game and everyone was just, “Wow, we can do this.” They're a quality opponent and we were doing this well against them."
Smith was the defensive coordinator for West's 1995 state championship team, a squad that allowed only 66 points while winning all 13 games. The Panthers scored 13 points or less in three of their victories.
This team has been dominant on both sides of the ball.
"We're certainly not about one guy or any one thing," Smith said. "When we've been really on, we've been collective as a group, a bunch of guys really committed to what we're doing. We've been good on both sides of the ball. Probably in '95, we were a good offensive team and an outstanding defensive team."