Lakeland must address lack of upperclassmen and experience

Power football has been a tradition at Lakeland High School for generations.

The Chiefs built a rock-solid reputation as one of NEPA's elite programs with a simple formula: dominate the line of scrimmage.

That philosophy … one of running the ball and stopping the run … has served Lakeland coaches well over the course of the past three decades.

From Suburban Conference to Big 11, NEPFC to LFC, the Chiefs have used big tailbacks and hard-hitting linebackers to rack up one championship after another.

Time to Reflect

Last year was no exception as Coach Jeff Wasilchak's squad rolled to a 9-1 regular season record.

The Chiefs finished second only to unbeaten Dunmore in the Division III standings. They then advanced to the District Two Class AA title tilt before finally being eliminated by those pesky Bucks, 28-14.

“We had a good year,” Coach Wasilchak said with characteristic candor.

“I would have liked to win a couple more games, but it wasn't for lack of effort. That was a special group of kids. They worked hard from the first day of practice to the end of the season.”

Graduation took a heavy toll on Lakeland, so it will be a much younger squad that opens up its 2017 campaign Friday, August 25 at home against Valley View.

“I'm excited to get out there and see what we've got,” Coach Wasilchak said as this year's PIAA-mandated heat acclimation sessions began.

“This is another good group of kids. They're all working hard. It's always interesting to see who steps up and who plays well when you give them a chance to shine.”

On the Field

The Chiefs will have their work cut out for them in trying to match their win total from last year.

Lakeland returns just three starters on offense and two defensively from a team that was near the top of every statistical category last fall.

The Chapman Lake lads racked up nearly 400 points in 2016 while surrendering just 141 (40-14 average margin of victory).

Coach Wasilchak's squad added a 28-20 decision over Riverside in the AA semi-finals for a total of 11 wins.

The power trio of Cyril Babcanec (968 yards), Eric Ferko (687) and Mike Lowry (577) combined to score 24 TDs, but only Babcanec returns.

However, a pair of battle-tested veterans are back to lead the way for Lakeland.

Nico Piraino and Paul Sokoloski accompanied their head coach to this year's Lackawanna Football Conference Media Day. The sixth annual luncheon was held last Tuesday at the Regal Room in Olyphant.

There, representatives from all 20 member schools gathered to “meet the press” and size up the competition.

Piraino is a senior who returns as the starting quarterback. Nico was a model of efficiency for team that leaned heavily on the run. He threw 15 touchdown passes and just four picks, a fact that has his skipper giddy with anticipation.

“Nico makes very good decisions with the ball,” said Coach Wasilchak.

“He shows a lot of poise under center and in the pocket. He's a leader. He leads by example and he's the kind of kid you can hitch your wagon to. I'm expecting big things from Nico this season.”

Sokoloski has battled injuries during his high school career, but appears to be at 100 percent as pre-season workouts begin.

Paul will start both ways, at fullback on offense and at defensive end.

“He's a dedicated kid,” said Coach Wasilchak. “Even when he was injured, Paul was never away from the team. He was at every practice trying to learn as much as he could so he'd be ready when he came back.

“Paul has excellent leadership qualities and a really good work ethic.”

Looking Ahead

Lakeland faces back-to-back road trips in Weeks Two and Three.

The Chiefs travel to Holy Cross on Saturday, Sept. 2 and Dunmore on Friday, Sept. 8. (For those of you paying close attention, that's a short week of practice before taking on the defending division and district champs).

Additionally, key games loom against Riverside (Oct. 6), Old Forge (Oct.13) and Mid Valley (Oct. 27).

“The kids are working hard right now to find their identity,” Coach Wasilchak said. “Obviously, we love to run the football, but you have to adjust to your personnel. We'll just take it one day at a time, one game at a time.”