No one is a harsher critic of LJ Clark than the Lakewood coach himself. Accountability has long been one of his primary principles and a pillar he’s cemented into his program. Forget excuses. No one wants to hear them no matter how valid some may be. They’re a waste of time if they take up any that can be better spent devising answers to rectify problems.

He takes last season’s 1-9 showing quite personal. You don’t even have to ask him about causes for a downfall, one that ended a string of three straight winning seasons. He freely laments how painful it was to endure as the overseer of his alma mater, how it hurt to watch his players to continue to work hard without fruits for their labor, because buried within the hardship was an impetus for a reboot.

“I was embarrassed,” Clark confided. “I felt like I let the kids down... a lot of poor leadership on my part. I’m driven to get them better prepared. I’m 100 percent behind my kids.”

To be fair, it was a perfect storm that played a huge part in a fall from grace that snapped a string of three straight winning seasons. The Piners’ previous success earned them a jump in class, up to Constitution Division where it had to contend with bigger schools like Jackson Memorial, Southern, Lacey, Wall and Marlboro with far smaller numbers and few holdovers from the previously successful campaigns. The collection of playmakers Lakewood had at its disposal prior to ‘18 was vastly diminished, replaced with inexperience that got exposed despite a tireless effort to make due. 

While it was overwhelmed on some occasions, Lakewood held its own in others, falling to Lacey, 21-20, and Marlboro, 22-14. The game action gained against stiff competition should serve it well as it joins the Freedom Division and prepares to clash with more comparable competition.  

The change in scenery coincides with a team that’s made progressive strides and returns 10 players with time logged as varsity starters. The combination could signal a swift turnaround back in the right direction for the Piners. 

“I keep telling them that they have a storybook ending if they want to write it,” shared Clark. “They can be the group that brings Lakewood back to the playoffs.”’

From left to right: Yahmal Johnson, Haaziq Barksdale, Eric Torres, TJ Paturzo and Francisco Santillan of Lakewood

Player to Watch: TJ Paturzo (Sr. QB 5-9, 190)

With a full season of snaps under his belt engineering the offense as a junior, Paturzo is ready for a breakthrough senior year. He is more streamlined and comfortable working either under center or out of the pistol and has a firmer grasp of the concepts involved in running the offense. 

“People are going to be shocked at how athletic he is,” noted Clark. “He fits our mold and has a chip on his shoulder.

Player to Watch, Part II: Haaziq Barksdale (Jr. RB/DB 5-7, 170)

To compare Barksdale to his older brother, former Piner star Amir Tyler, is unfair and misses the point. Tyler boasted speed and power in a larger frame, while his younger sibling brings far different strengths to the equation. More of a scatback, Barksdale is elusive, slick at denying defenders ideal tackling angles. His fearless run style, decisiveness in open space and heady thinking should make him an attractive and often-sought piece of the offense puzzle. 

“Amir wore a size 11 ½ while Haaziq is a 10 ½. So, he might not literally fill those shoes but he has done everything possible to get better,” said Clark. “He’s a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, track) and he hasn’t missed a practice in any sport over the last two years. He and (sophomore) Andre Peace push each other and we need that.”

Player Under the Radar: Raymond Torres (Jr. OL/DL 6-0, 185)

Lakewood should be amply stocked on both sides of the line of scrimmage and Torres is a quiet reason why. Hard-nosed and willing to lock down whoever lines up across from him at right guard, he will be a driving force in what the offense looks to accomplish. His length and technique should also provide the Piners with some depth along the defensive front three.

Player Under the Radar, Part II: Francisco Santillan (Sr. RB/LB 6-1, 205)

Santillan is ready to draw some serious attention. A tackling machine who covers ground in a hurry, Santillan will be the compass pointing his defensive cohorts straight to the football. He should also be a pivotal lead blocker at fullback.

Player Under the Radar, Part III: Yahmal Johnson (Sr. RB/LB 6-2, 200)

The Piners are excited about Johnson, who has the makings of being a two-way force. Fast and physical, Johnson plays with power and purpose in his dual assignments.

Top Unit: Offensive Line

This crew is itching to overpower some folks up front. Senior left tackle Kevin Rybakowski (6-2, 295) and senior left guard Jadyin Overton (5-10, 295) can probably anticipate plenty of action unfolding behind them due to their lifting rituals. A couple of weight room warriors, each has deadlifted and back squatted over 500 pounds while enticing their pals on the line to pump iron as well. Torres, sophomore centers Jalen London (5-10, 225) and Lamir Clark (5-9, 225), the son of head coach LJ Clark, and junior right tackle Javon McDaniels (6-2, 250) will let opponents know where the beef resides for the Piners by striving to dictate the interior terms. Rybakowski, Overton and McDaniels are all returning starters, continuing a recent trend at Lakewood of molding unified offensive lines. 

Lakewood will be successful if…

If the team abides by the principles installed by Clark since he’s been at the helm. Certainly, winning is a desired outcome, something Lakewood grew accustomed to until a hiccup last fall. The 1-9 showing in ‘18 ended a run of three consecutive winning season and five in a stretch of six years.

“We have good kids who work hard,” Clark said. “They weathered the storm last year and have a chip on their shoulder. I reminded them everyday that we were 1-9. I want to burn it into them. But, more importantly, if they do the right things off the field, it will happen on the field. I want to help make them good sons, good brothers and, someday, good fathers and good husbands.”

Tracking the Piners

Clark is a firm believer in the virtues of being well-rounded athletes, stressing to his players to pursue other sports beyond the gridiron. One of those alternatives is track, where Evan Baubles and Lew Peccarelli, assistants for football, oversee the indoor and outdoor programs. Guys like Yahmal Johnson, Andre Peace and Haaziq Barksdale utilize the opportunity to condition and compete away from football and return in the fall chiseled and ready for action in top form.

Air-Traffic Controllers

Don’t overlook what the Piners have in the defensive secondary. Playmakers abound with Barksdale and Peace on the corners and Torres teammed with senior Rodney Wall (6-2, 175) at the safeties. All four can cover like a blanket and won’t balk at the chance to jump a route and take an interception the other way. 

Sound nucleus

Lakewood returns five starters on both sides of the ball and the numbers in the program aren’t bad, meaning it can operate with the luxury of subtle depth. Clark has tried to avoid employing too many key assets as two-way workers, designing rotations at spots like wide receiver, to keep the position fresh. Rodney Wall and fellow seniors Tymir Bergstrom (6-3, 175) and Sean Antoine (6-2, 200) plan to make the most of their height against smaller defenders on the perimeter. Junior newcomer Sykeer Powell (5-9, 155) should also challenge for time at both wide receiver and defensive back and could add some options besides Torres in the slot. .

Rugged in the box

Senior Camilo Reneteria (6-2, 260) and juniors Gustavo Saaverda (5-10, 195) and Angel Gonzalez (6-1,225) will comprise the odd front of the 3-4 with underrated senior Francisco Santillan (6-1, 205), Johnson and Bergstrom supplying linebacker support. As a whole, the group can quickly spill into gaps to deny inside pursuits while its collective quickness has designs on yielding little off the edges. They’ll leave their calling cards with a fast, bruising style..

A Century of Tradition

In an era where traditional Thanksgiving Day games have gradually disappeared from the schedule, one has carried on and will celebrate a milestone. Lakewood hosts Toms River South in the 100th installment of their storied rivalry on Nov. 28 with the Piners attempting to chip away at the Indians’ 56-39-4 edge in the annual Turkey Day series.

AT A GLANCE

COACHING STAFF

HEAD COACH: LJ Clark, 9th season

CAREER RECORD: 39-43

ASSISTANT COACHES:

Evan Baubles (Assistant Head Coach/Off. Coordinator/DL)

Lewis Peccarelli (LB/RB)

Bob Terrigno (FB/OLB)

Ben Pivetz (WR/DB)

Sam Iacobone (OL/DL)

Tim Brown (Assistant Coach)

Steve Forsyth (Assistant Coach)

2018 RECORD: 1-9 (0-5 in Constitution Division)

OFFENSE: Multiple

DEFENSE: 3-4

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Yahmal Johnson (Sr. RB/LB)

Man, does Johnson have a tough act to follow. He’ll be leaned upon to assume the double duties handled a year ago by standout Dante Morris. The 6-2, 200-pounder is geared for the responsibilities. Johnson will instill the physicality, speed and conditioning to haul the heavy burden of working two ways. 

X-FACTOR: Eric Torres (Sr. SB/SS)

Torres is one of the few leftovers from 2017 cast that rebounded from a 1-4 start to carve a 6-5 mark and qualify for the South Jersey, Group 3 playoffs. His versatility, commitment to the program are values Lakewood hopes become infectious.  

IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Andre Peace (So. SB/DB)

Peace got a small taste of varsity time as a freshman. His work ethic, coupled with blistering speed, should make him an enticing target in the slot as well as an adhesive cover man in the defensive secondary.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 13 at Barnegat

Once rivals in the B South, these two will renew acquaintances in a non-divisional matchup in Week 1. Lakewood holds the recent upper hand, winning the last three meetings by an average margin of 21.3 points. However, Barnegat comes off a 7-3 showing a year ago with plenty to be wary of from the Piners’ perspective. The effort - and not so much the result - could go a long way toward defining Lakewood.  

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