Symbol of Resurgence: Lakewood’s Chapelle Cook
When Lakewood senior Chapelle Cook declares his commitment to one of the four FBS programs on his list later this summer, it will be a proud day for much more than just his family.
In the Piners' ongoing resurgence, Cook's commitment to either Temple, Rutgers, Boston College or Pittsburgh will serve as a concrete symbol that not only is Lakewood winning on the field again, but that it's a place where athletes can successfully move on to the highest tier of college football. Cook said he is mulling over announcing his decision the night before the Piners' season opener on Sept. 13.
"Having me go to a big school, that does help, because there’s going to be a lot of press for that,'' Cook said. "It’s just going to help the young kids because they say, ‘Chapelle did this, and Chapelle went there.’ It shows it can be done, in the classroom and on the field."
The last Lakewood player to earn a scholarship to an FBS program was defensive end Thomas Carroll, who played at Miami from 2001-05. The last Piner to commit to a FBS program was running back Dwayne Jones in 2003, but Jones never made it to Rutgers University and was ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison for armed robbery in 2006. Cook making it to the FBS level is one more step in erasing that memory and combating the negative image of Lakewood.
"We have a lot of talent in this town,'' Cook said. "We just have to get the kids out and get them dedicated. That’s always been the problem. Everybody in Lakewood had a nonchalant, 'I don’t care' attitude, and we’re trying to bring it back to where people see football at Lakewood as a big deal."
The performance of the Piners is a way to use the positive headlines about Lakewood in the sports section to counteract the stories of guns and drugs in the news section.
"We're not stupid, we know the way a lot of people look at Lakewood and the way that the town is portrayed in the media,'' said fourth-year head coach L.J. Clark, who played for the Piners. "When (New York Knicks guard) J.R. Smith scores 40 points, he's from St. Benedict's. When he does something stupid, he's from Lakewood. We're just trying to show that there are a lot of positive things going on here, too."
Cook is certainly part of that plan. A three-year varsity starter since transferring from Manchester, he played tailback and linebacker last season when the Piners finished 6-5 and won their first state playoff game since 1986. As a senior, he is switching back to quarterback, which he played as a sophomore while filling in a few games for injured started Tyrice Beverette, who is now a defensive back at Stony Brook University.
Cook ran for 853 yards and 8 touchdowns while also throwing a touchdown as a junior. He was right in the middle of the biggest moment in Lakewood football in 27 years when he scored on a three-yard run with only seconds remaining to stun Delran 20-12 in the Central Jersey Group II playoffs.
Cook was able to get back into the groove when he played quarterback for the Piners last week in the Ocean County 7-on-7 tournament leading up to the U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic.
"It’s not too much of an adjustment,'' he said. "I like playing quarterback because the ball is in my hands every play, and I have control of the offense. I’m that guy in the offense now. I also look at it like I can take a bigger leadership role now that I’m the quarterback. You’re the head honcho of the offense."
Temple, which appears to be the front-runner after offering Cook during his sophomore year, is recruiting him as a tailback and linebacker, while he said Pittsburgh and Rutgers are looking at him as a weakside linebacker and Boston College is recruiting him as a tailback. His willingness to play out of position shows that players are buying into the team concept after nearly a lost decade from 2003-2011 when Lakewood went a combined 10-80.
"He said, ‘Coach, whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it,''' Clark said.
Cook will command the spread Wing-T offense that Lakewood is implementing under new offensive coordinator Len Zdanowicz, a former longtime assistant at Brick. Cook will have weapons like junior Amir Tyler and senior Anthony Terry at his disposal to help jumpstart on offense that averaged 20.1 points per game in 2013, but only 14.6 against playoff opponents. Lakewood is based around running the ball and rugged defense, so any boost on the scoreboard will only make the Piners more formidable.
"Offensively, we struggled a lot,'' Clark said. "We were very limited at quarterback. When we played the Weequahics of the world, nine in the box was tough. Now we’ll have a lot more illusion, and it won’t be just one kid."
Quarterback is the alpha dog position at Lakewood that was manned to great success by Beverette, a two-time, first-team All-Shore selection who was instrumental in the Piners' comeback from the abyss. Also a standout student, Beverette set the tone for the entire program during his time at Lakewood, which included starring on a highly-successful basketball team that also features multiple football players.
"Tyrice was the wheels to our van,'' Cook said. "When he went, we went. Tyrice is one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen in my life. He made the path for me, and everyone else."
Not only did Beverette help reverse Lakewood's fortunes on the field, starting with a 3-7 season in the lone year under Hall of Famer Warren Wolf in 2010 and then a seven-win season under Clark in 2012, he also put the Piners back on the recruiting map. Although he didn't land any FBS offers, he did get attention from a handful of FBS schools as well as garnering multiple FCS offers at a place that had been recruiting Siberia due to the combination of constant losing and players failing to qualify academically.
"Without Tyrice, who knows if I would’ve been as heavily recruited as I was,'' Cook said. "Schools were coming to see Tyrice, and they saw me."
Cook isn't the only one, either, as senior linebacker/defensive end Datrell Reed has an offer from Bryant University and other FCS and FBS interest. Those two have now paved the way for the recruitment of junior linebacker Amir Tyler, a three-year varsity player who is the next star in the line of succession.
"Florida State and Auburn have called about Tyler,'' Clark said. "I don’t know if they’ll ever offer, but they’ve never even called me before, so it shows how much things have changed. I didn't have a lunch period the past two months of the school year because it was just college coach after college coach calling me or visiting."
With increased exposure and accomplishments have come increased expectations. Given what the Piners have returning this season, they expect to challenge Barnegat's supremacy in Class B South after handing the Bengals one of their two losses last year. Lakewood's last division title came in 2000 when Carroll was their main star.
"I can’t wait to play Barnegat,'' Cook said. "(Penn State recruit) Manny Bowen, they said he was the hottest recruit in the nation this spring. When I lace up on the other side of the ball, I’m going to dominate him. I hope he can see this article because I really mean it. That’s just my mentality and my confidence. I’m not being cocky, I just feel like I put in enough work to be able to do what I say."
After reaching the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II semifinals last season, they now want to finish the job and dethrone defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven, who they will play in a nondivisional game during the regular season. Lakewood's only state championship since the advent of the playoff system in 1974 came when it won South Jersey Group III in 1986. One of the Shore Conference's oldest programs, the Piners were winning state titles as far back as the 1940s, when sectional titles were awarded by the NJSIAA before the playoffs were created.
"We’re looking to come out and show (Rumson) that we’ll see you in the playoffs,'' Cook said. "We’re looking to get a win on their turf and just translate it to the playoffs. We have so much expectations this year, it’s ridiculous."
Having turned in consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2000-01, the Piners look to keep climbing and change the perception of their team as much as the results.
"Seeing Lakewood being so down, and people saying the ‘L’ on Lakewood’s helmets is for losers because they lose every game, it was frustrating,'' Cook said. "When we walk through the halls of Lakewood, we see all the stuff from these football state championship teams of the past, and we’re like, ‘That could be us.’''
While speaking about Lakewood's championship potential as a team, Cook might as well have also been speaking about his recruitment. Going to Lakewood and leaving as an FBS recruit is no longer a far-fetched proposition.
"We know it’s actually a realistic goal now,'' he said. "It’s not something that we just think about, it’s something we can actually achieve."