Eighty-three kids turning out for football is a healthy number for any school, let alone one that plays in the 2A classification.
But that’s how many players showed up this summer at Lakewood High School, which helps explain how in recent years the Cougars have evolved into one of the most successful programs in the area.
At Lakewood, when one stellar class graduates — as did last year’s group that included quarterback-receiver-running back Justin Peterson, receiver Brandon Stott and running back Donovan Evans — another one steps up to take its place.
This year’s team has yet to lose a game and seeks to improve to 6-0 tonight when it takes on Sultan in a key Cascade Conference game.
“It’s built over the last several years,” Lakewood head coach Dan Teeter said of the turnout numbers. “Last year, it was upper 70s. Probably lower 70s the year before that. I think the numbers have grown every year since I’ve been here. This is definitely the highest point since I’ve been coaching here.”
Teeter, in his eighth season with the Cougars, had 34 kids show up in his first year. He took over a program that took several years to build up. In fact, it was just this season that Teeter’s career coaching record at Lakewood reached .500.
“My career record at Lakewood is just barely over .500,” he said. “We just achieved that now. My first couple years it was 1-9, 2-8, 3-7.”
But eventually things turned around. In 2010, the Cougars posted a 7-3 record and made the playoffs. The following season, they tied perennial Cascade Conference power Archbishop Murphy for the league title.
Last year, Lakewood finished second behind King’s — another difficult conference foe — and advanced to the 2A state quarterfinals.
“The class that really changed it was the class two years ago with Dustin Stanton and Chris Melton,” Teeter said. “They were the kids I had since eighth grade. They really bought in and were leaders in the program.”
Teeter credits Lakewood’s development to two major factors. First, the players are required to collect “commitment points,” which they can earn in several ways, including weight-room visits, good grades, attending camps and participating in other sports.
A player needs 125 points before he can play on Friday nights.
“Number one is the commitment level of our athletes,” Teeter said. “We really push commitment and there’s some things we do to push them. … It requires kids to put some time in and commit to the program. We’ve actually had to turn away some decent athletes in the last couple of years.”
The second key, Teeter said, is the coaching staff, which volunteers in the weight room year-round.
“We have a staff that I think is phenomenal,” Teeter said. “Most of the staff has been together for about four or five years now. So there’s continuity and there’s a staff that cares about the kids.”
In part because of all the time spent together — including several team-bonding activities during the year — both Teeter and his players routinely refer to the Lakewood football team as a “family.”
“I think everybody just really likes our family atmosphere. We really are a family,” senior linebacker-wide receiver Jake Vanwinkle said. “A lot of teams stress that, but we are. We’re a brotherhood. We all love each other and we’re all constantly joking and having fun and everybody sees that. I guess everyone just wants to be a part of that.”
Vanwinkle said the entire team is friends, from the first-year players to the experienced seniors.
“We don’t really have a hierarchy system,” he said. “When I came in as a freshman, I felt really welcomed. I think the biggest difference of being a freshman to a senior is you’re now the welcomer instead of the welcomed.”
Another factor that draws players to the program is the experience of being on the field on Friday nights.
“Everybody’s always packing the stands every Friday night,” Vanwinkle said. “It’s a fun thing to be a part of.”
And that support helps as Lakewood tries to navigate a tough league schedule. This year, the Cascade Conference appears to be up for grabs, with the Cougars, King’s and Sultan all vying for the championship.
“I think this week will be telling for us,” Teeter said. “Sultan puts a lot of work in and with work comes results. It’s going to be a good battle on Friday. We like to see the league get better. It makes every team better as they battle.”
Sultan has noticed the change in the Lakewood program since Teeter’s arrival. Turks’ head coach Ben Murphy said Sultan wants to emulate the Cougars’ ways — and their success.
“Their attitude was definitely turned around,” Murphy said. “Coach Teeter does a great job. He’s built that program and his hard work and dedication has sunk in now and started to pay off for him. His kids permeate that attitude he portrays of confidence and playing football the right way. They’ve bought into that program.
“(At Sultan we’re trying) kind of the same thing. We’re not on Lakewood’s level yet. … We’ve modeled a lot of things off how Lakewood has done it and how King’s has done it. Those are two model teams in our league. Those are who we’re chasing. We’re working on how do we do something similar, but put our own stamp on it?”
Where: Sultan H.S.
When: 7 p.m.
Breakdown: Coming into the season, every team in the Cascade Conference knew the league title was up for grabs. With the usual suspects — King’s, Archbishop Murphy and Lakewood — graduating a number of players, each team felt like this could be their year.
Lakewood, at 5-0 this season, has emerged as one of the conference favorites along with King’s (3-0 league, 4-1 overall). Right behind those two in the league standings is Sultan.
“You still take it one game at a time. I think this week will be telling for us,” said Lakewood head coach Dan Teeter. “Sultan puts a lot of work in and with work comes results. It’s going to be a good battle on Friday. We like to see the league get better. It makes every team better as they battle.”
Sultan (2-1, 2-3) is coming off an all-out battle with King’s, where the Knights just barely prevailed 7-3. Ben Murphy, the Turks’ head coach, said that Sultan moved on from the tough loss last Friday night while still on the football field.
“I think our kids moved on fairly quick,” Murphy said. “It started as soon as the game was over in the team meeting we had on the field. I didn’t really talk about what just happened. Our kids are smart kids. They realized there are some mistakes that cost us. So in the team meeting we just talked about what lies ahead and what we need to do to take care of our business.”
Murphy is expecting another tough game against the Cougars, which will give Sultan a chance to show it belongs in the conversation with Lakewood and King’s for the league title.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought game,” Murphy said. “I think both teams will come in ready to play. Obviously, Lakewood will be the favorite because we haven’t done anything to change it yet.”
Sultan is hoping to do just that tonight.