Dante Morris is a byproduct of Piner Pride.

Yes, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior looks like he’s been chiseled from granite, a physical specimen who Lakewood will hang a good deal of its hopes on as the most recent two-way star pumped from its prosperous pipeline. But, to measure Morris solely on qualities related to sports is to applaud a small piece of a far greater picture.

Morris is much deeper, intellectual as a model classroom ambassador and involved in extracurricular activities outside competitive arenas that epitomize the essence of what an ideal student-athlete resembles. A strong representative of what head coach L,J, Clark has spent his tenure trying to build; not just a program respected for accomplishments but admired for the character within it that continues to lay the groundwork of success.

Dante Morris of Lakewood (Photo by Paula Lopez)

“I take being a leader very serious,” noted Morris. “I see myself as a good role model for all the athletes here. I want to work hard, have a positive attitude and hope for the best. I’d like to be remembered as an important part of Lakewood. That’s all I want.”

By all accounts, Morris is ahead of the curve. His exemplary work rate, studious profile and values for being diverse are all traits embedded within Lakewood, the cornerstones that best describe an integral part of what Piner Pride is all about and how it will determine the path taken by an eager ensemble set to embark.

“Dante Morris is a genetic freak,” said Clark, entering his eighth season with the intentions of steering Lakewood to a seventh straight playoff appearance. “He’s also one of the best kids in the world. He comes from a great family. His mom and dad have done a great job raising him. He was a District 23 wrestling champion at 220 (pounds), ran the 100 meters in track and is just an overall good person. He does everything you can ask from a kid.”

One request for Morris will be to serve as the beacon for a team primed for a progressive jump in competition. The Piners, who will challenge for a berth in South Jersey Group 4, are members of the Constitution Division, which includes Jackson Memorial, Southern, Marlboro, Lacey and Wall. It’s a safe bet all five will outsize Lakewood – whose numbers are on an upswing - in terms of roster size - but will have to offset a group that’s never wasted time taking a head count because it’s too consumed with compensating through hustle and heart.

Oh yeah, add in muscle to the equation. The Piners are going to be strong across the offensive front, which returns all five starters, making it by far the most experienced unit of the team. Tye Pierce (5-8, 255), a senior and four-year starter, will anchor the line at center, flanked by classmates Eric Rice (6-0, 300) and Kevin Rodriguez (5-10, 255) at the guards and juniors Francisco Santillan (6-1, 210) and Kevin Rybakowski (6-3, 295) manning the tackles.

Tye Pierce of Lakewood (Photo by Paula Lopez)

“They all started every game for us last year and we did a pretty good job running,” noted Clark. “At any level, it all starts up front and our kids got a lot bigger and stronger. If you can control the line of scrimmage, you have a good shot.”

Morris and sophomore Haaziq Barksdale, the younger brother of former Lakewood star Amir Tyler, who is currently at Temple, will be entrusted to move the chains as the key cogs of the running attack. Their styles may vary, but their output could be similar. Although quick, Morris will give just as good as he gets when administering contact charging through a hole while the 5-foot-7, 160-pound Barksdale is more reliant on an array of slick cuts and sudden bursts to complete a thunder-and-lightning combination. Also, pay close attention to juniors Josh Gonzalez (5-8, 170) and Ja’mar McLeod (6-0, 210), who will anxiously await to spell either in the backfield.

One of the most glaring voids Lakewood must fill is at quarterback. Zyheir Jones, who starred as both a signal caller and defensive back, has moved on and junior T.J. Paturzo, a transfer from Toms River North, has moved in. Protected by a cohesive offensive line and dangerous running game, Paturzo’s transition to the role is somewhat eased by the components around him but he will be asked to make the right reads in the Shotgun Wing-T.

Two elements Paturzo will need to incorporate are wide receivers Sincere Moore (6-2, 175) and Ty’mir Bergstrom (6-3, 170), the latter of whom grew two inches in the offseason, perfectly timed for his return to the mix after missing his sophomore year with a broken collarbone.

Opponents will also have to respect an improved kicking game, keyed by sophomore Miguel Mendoza. Once handcuffed to aggressive play calls on fourth downs and two-point conversions, Lakewood can rest easy on Mendoza’s big foot.

From left to right: Kevin Rodriguez, Haaziq Barksdale, Dante Morris, Tye Pierce, Eric Rice and Sincere Moore of Lakewood (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Where Clark hopes to see a marked improvement is on the defensive side. The Piners conceded 22.5 points per game in 2017, a subtle increase when compared to the previous five years. One adjustment to rectify the issue is a move from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4.

“Last year, our defense looked good on paper, but it wasn’t characteristic of Lakewood,” Clark admitted. “We have a lot more linebackers than defensive linemen so personnel has to play to the scheme. We’ll get after it on defense.”

Juniors Camilo Renteria (6-1, 290) and Jaylin Overton (5-10, 305) will work the three techniques, bookending sophomore Angel Gonzalez (6-1, 190) on the nose as the defensive line adjust following the departure of Josh Lezin to the University of Maine.  Morris and juniors Francisco Santillan (6-1, 210), Gonzalez, McLeod and Erik Torres (5-8, 170) form a punishing linebacking corps that will be the epicenter of the defense.

Moore and junior Rodney Wall (6-1, 175) will orchestrate secondary coverage at the safeties with seniors Antonio Cummings (6-2, 180) and Naseem Brown (6-1, 170) operating on the corners.

At a Glance

Head coach: LJ Clark, 8th season

Career record: 38-34

2017 Record: 6-5 (3-4 in B South)

Offense: Shotgun Wing-T

Defense: 3-4

Coaching staff: Evan Baubles (off. coord./OL/DL); Lewis Peccarelli (def. coord./RB/LB); Devron Clark (WR/DB/special teams); Tim Brown (asst. coach); Bob Terrigno, Zeke Suhbban (freshmen); Tim Reddan (asst. coach); Mike Muth (asst. coach); John Frye (asst. coach).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: T.J Paturzo, Jr., QB

Not only is Paturzo the new kid in town – a transfer from Toms River North – he has the unenviable task of filling a void left by Zyheir Jones. Head coach L.J. Clark has defused the burden by asking the junior not to shoot for his predecessor’s gaudy numbers, but to carve a niche for himself. A stable of talented runners will deflect some of the pressure off Paturzo, but beware of his live arm. Stack the box and he’s gonna make someone pay.

X-FACTOR: Haaziq Barksdale, So., RB/LB

With the Piners leaning on their running backs to fuel the offense, such a request is music to the ears of the elusive sophomore. The younger brother of former Lakewood star Amir Tyler, Barksdale’s 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame conveniently ducks behind his offensive line in a coy version of hide-and-go-seek. If defenders can’t initially find him, chances are they’ll be turning around just in time to watch him spring into daylight.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Antonio Cummings, Sr., WR/CB

Clark sees a lot to get excited about regarding the 6-foot-2, 180-pound first-year player. Besides intriguing physical attributes, Cummings is versatile, one of many three-sport participants on the roster. But, it’s his high competitive threshold that Lakewood will bank on in terms of locking down receivers on the perimeter.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 22 vs. Jackson Memorial

Few things elicit the best from Lakewood more so than when it’s considered an underdog. The Piners, who, along with Point Boro, were the measuring stick in B South over the last five years, bear the weight of a loaded schedule against squads that may outnumber them in manpower. But don't be surprised what this crew is able to accomplish through talent, sheer pride and a steely resolve to create artistry with what is at its disposal. The Piners are anxious to see how they stack up against perennial heavyweights. A strong performance against the Jaguars could go a long way toward defining Lakewood.

 

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