In the past two years, Lakewood has registered its most wins since 2000 and won its first state playoff game since 1986, so now the mission is clear with a star-studded group of returning talent.

“We're looking to take that next step forward to being in the state championship,’’ said fourth-year head coach L.J. Clark.

The Piners reached the Central Jersey Group II semifinals before bowing to eventual runner-up Weequahic last season, and now they’re out to finish the job in a bracket where one of their regular-season opponents, Rumson-Fair Haven, is the defending champion. Lakewood’s only state title in program history came in 1986.

Temple recruit Chapelle Cook moves from tailback to quarterback for Lakewood this year. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“Last year gave us a taste of what’s to come,’’ said senior quarterback/linebacker Chapelle Cook. “We know our potential, and we know how far we can get.”

The backbone of the team once again looks to be the defense under coordinator Jamil Jackson, which allowed 23 points per game last season but held Class B South champion Barnegat to 14 and limited Delran to 12 in a state playoff win. The defense returns seven starters, led by four-year starter Datrell Reed, who has an offer from Bryant University and FBS interest after registering 51 tackles, 7 sacks and a pair of interceptions last year. Also returning is three-year starter Amir Tyler, a junior linebacker who picked up an offer from Temple this summer on the heels of a sophomore season in which he earned second-team All-Shore honors with 91 tackles, 3 sacks and 3 interceptions.

“We're going to be better than last year,’’ Tyler said. “We slacked off against teams like Point Boro, and that's not happening anymore.”

Senior Anthony Terry moves to noseguard in the 3-4 scheme after starting at defensive end last year, and will be flanked by Reed and 6-foot-6 junior Ryzon Barnes, a power forward on the basketball team who saw some time up front on defense last year. Freshman Josh Lezin, who is 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, will also see some time at defensive end.

Tyler and senior Devin Delaney are returning starters at inside linebacker for an opportunistic defense that scored eight touchdowns last year, and 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore Adi Palmer is a returning starter at outside linebacker. Cook, who is verbally committed to Temple, will also play outside linebacker after playing primarily on offense all of last season.

“Our front seven should be second to none,’’ Clark said.

Junior Hassan Diawara is a returning starter at safety, and sophomore Zion Tinnery steps in as the starter at the other safety spot. Senior Eric Segui is a returning starter at cornerback, and senior Naquese Joshua will man the other cornerback spot after seeing time last year. Junior Jaquel Hunter should also see time at corner this year. Segui returns as the placekicker and punter.

“Our defense is knocking helmets off, flying to the ball, and doing what we have to do,’’ Cook said.

The Piners have revamped their offense this year, going from the spread to a shotgun Wing-T under new coordinator Len Zdanowicz to take advantage of their multiple weapons after averaging 22.1 points per game last year. Cook moves to quarterback after leading the team with 853 yards rushing and eight touchdowns as the tailback last season. He played some quarterback as a sophomore and also saw some snaps last year at a position that never really was able to get settled all season.

“It's clicking,’’ Cook said about the new offense. “This year we have a lot more skill and a lot more people to surround me and Amir.”

Tyler returns in the backfield and will be one of the slotbacks in the Wing-T after rushing for 591 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Terry and Delaney will both see carries at fullback, and Segui, Tinnery and junior Sheldon Cobbs will all be in the rotation at the other slotback spot.

“Offensively, with our Wing-T scheme, you really don't know who's going to get the ball between Amir, Chapelle and our other wingbacks,’’ Clark said. “We're not going to be one-dimensional and smash people in the mouth. We have big-play capability, so you could be stopping us all game and boom, 80-yard touchdown.”

Joshua, who played quarterback for much of last season, will now be at wide receiver along with Palmer. Reed and Barnes will both see minutes at tight end.

“With Chapelle at quarterback, people are going to play up in the box, but he has been looking good in the 7-on-7s and scrimmages in throwing the ball,’’ Clark said. “He’s starting to get very comfortable. We've been really harping on him to be a quarterback and not just a runner.”

“Our passing game is looking a lot more fluid,’’ Cook said. “We’ll be able to throw the ball 12 or more times per game this season. This new offense has made it easy to make my reads and progressions, and it’s been an easy transition for me this year.”

Up front, senior Keyshaun Conover will play center after starting at guard last year, and senior Jaevon Wright returns as a starter at guard. Junior Jayshon Fisher steps in at the other guard spot, and junior Elijah Gill is a returning starter at tackle. Senior Press Imyau is a newcomer at the other tackle spot, and Lezin should also see time in the offensive line rotation.

Two crucial areas for the Piners this year are staying healthy, as they don’t have much depth, and filling the leadership vacuum after struggles in that aspect last year.

“We had a big leadership void last year, but our senior leadership is in a good place now,’’ Clark said.

Consistency is another point of emphasis after a season in which the Piners handed Barnegat its only divisional loss and beat Delran, yet were stunned by a Point Boro team that finished 1-9.

“Last year coach (Clark) told us before the Barnegat game that if we win this game, we're in the playoffs, so we came ready to play and we got the ‘W,’’’ Cook said. “If we come out with that energy every game, there's no reason we can't finish the season undefeated.”


Head coach: L.J. Clark, 4th season

Career record: 15-16

Assistant coaches: Jamil Jackson (def. coord.); Len Zdanowicz (off. coord./DL); Evan Baubles (spec. teams/OL/DL); Lou Peccarrelli (WR/OLB); Zac Baltz (DB/TE); Al LaMura (QB/DB); Kyle Watson, Steve Galandi (freshman); Pat Halpin (athletic trainer).

2012 record: 6-5 (4-3)

Big Shoes to Fill: Elijah Gill, Jr., OL/DL

Gill will look to help fill the void left by one of the Shore’s top linemen last season, 330-pound Ben Watson, as one of Lakewood’s top run blockers up front.

X-factor: The offense.

Lakewood’s defense looks to be one of the upper-echelon units in the Shore, so if the revamped offense can increase the scoring and be more consistent, the Piners have a chance to take that next step to a state final.

Glue Guy: Anthony Terry, Sr., RB/DL

A senior leader, Terry will run the ball at fullback in the Wing-T and also play in the middle of their 3-4 alignment at noseguard. He has received some FCS and Division II interest.

Impact newcomer: Zion Tinnery, So., RB/DB

The sophomore will start at safety and also be another weapon out of the backfield as a slotback in the shotgun Wing-T offense.