As Lake High School head football coach Bob Abbey called in his team for a post-practice meeting recently, he had to strain his voice so all the players could hear his instructions over the sounds emanating from behind him.
“We’re all pretty used to that by now,” Abbey said. “It’s kind of like living by the railroad tracks. You hardly ever notice the train going by after a while.”
Abbey and the Flyer football team have had to practice in the shadow of the cleanup from a June 5 tornado that ripped through Lake Township, killing six and leaving homes and the high school severely damaged.
With cranes hovering in the distance and the constant sound of heavy machinery in the background, the Flyers are adjusting to life after the storm.
Senior quarterback Alan Martinez said he tries to focus on the task at hand.
“I don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “There is the occasional cement truck that catches your eye, but I try and zero in on football.”
Starting from scratch
Abbey admits it hasn’t been easy getting things together for this football season. He and his staff have spent countless hours planning the logistics of how this season would work.
“All the equipment we had the day after the storm was the six footballs in the trunk of our quarterback’s car,” he said. “We had to order all new equipment for this season. It was a lot like starting a football program from scratch.”
The football stadium presented its own set of problems. The field sustained little damage in the storm upon first glance, but a closer look revealed shards of glass, metal and other debris embedded up to 8 inches into the ground.
“I thought we would just line up with some buckets and walk the field picking stuff up,” Abbey said. “It never dawned on me we would have stuff embedded that far into the field.”
The Lake Board of Education decided to replace the sod with artificial field turf, which will make the venue a multipurpose facility. Superintendent Jim Witt said the decision will benefit the school’s athletic teams in the long run.
“When we added in all the factors, the field turf was the way to go,” Witt said. “The cost was comparable to sod and the field turf will allow for quicker transition for usage by all of our teams, too.”
The stadium is scheduled to be completed in time for the team’s first home game Sept. 3. Abbey said the stadium’s completion will be a big relief to him and his team.
“At first I thought we were going to be playing 10 road games this season,” he said. “When the decision about the turf was announced, it was a weight lifted off my shoulders. It will be nice to play at home and give the team a sense of normalcy.”
There are still some issues to be resolved. Abbey said his team still has no locker rooms and might bring in modular classrooms to serve as a temporary solution.
There is also still a transportation issue as well, with the team still figuring out how to get the kids from the Owens Community College building on Tracy Road to the football field.
Abbey said that while some things are still up in the air, one thing he knows is his kids will go with the flow.
“They have been adapting all summer,” he said. “They have been through this every day since June 5, and I am proud of the way they handled it.”
The Flyers are coming off a 7-3 mark last season and despite all that has happened in and around the Lake community, there has been no change in the team’s expectations for this season.
“We want to win the league and go to the state playoffs,” quarterback Martinez said with a smile.
Fellow teammate and senior Kurt McKee couldn’t agree more.
“We are going to go out there and play to the best of our abilities,” he said. “There is no one who has higher expectations than we have for ourselves.”
Abbey has a special bond with this year’s seniors. Now in his fourth season as head coach, this is Abbey’s first group of players that have been with him for all four years at Lake.
“I have seen these guys grow and develop a lot since they first came out as freshmen,” he said. “This is a real close-knit group of guys and I am pleased with how they have grown into young men.”
If the Flyers are going to win the Suburban Lakes League (SLL), they will have to go through the three-time defending champion Genoa as well as Eastwood, who qualified for the state playoffs last season.
Abbey said the SLL is tough from the top all the way down.
“Genoa and Eastwood have been the top two in the league the last couple of years, and all the teams have improved coming into this season. It sounds cliché but we have to take it a week at a time and we have to be focused week in and week out on the task at hand.”
Abbey has a simple philosophy on how to top the competition this season.
“If you block and tackle well, you usually are going to win the football game,” he said. “We just need to keep improving and stay healthy.”
Abbey always looks forward to Friday nights in the fall, but he especially does this season.
“I’ll be happy because it will bring back a sense of normalcy to all of this,” he said. “When the season starts, we are on a normal schedule, and all the things we have dealt with this past offseason will have been taken care of. Then, we can just focus on school and football.”
Lake High School has long served a dual role as school and community center for the surrounding area. With the building in a state of disrepair, the focus will shift to the gridiron and Witt said the school board knew how important football would be for the entire community this season.
“I think the football games will serve many functions this year,” he said. “It will be a gathering place for the kids and the community, but it will also serve a therapeutic role for the people as well. That’s why it was never a question to have athletics this year.”
McKee said that the fans’ support will help him and his teammates.
“We had a lot of fans come out before all of this happened,” he said. “I think there will be even more this year and we are excited for them to come out and watch us.”
Abbey knows the focus on his team will be more intense in light of what has happened.
“This was the hub for the community and our first home game is going to be big,” he said. “I am hopeful that the sense of community will come back.”
The head coach also sees another opportunity.
“We have been in the news for a lot of tragic things these past couple of months,” he said. “My hope for these kids and this community is that this season and this team can put a positive spin on all that has happened.”