Like a lot of high school football coaches, Lake Norman’s Rob McNeely faces one big question heading into the 2015 season.
Can the Wildcats repeat, or even improve, on their success from the 2014 season, even with the loss of nearly two dozen players to graduation?
“We’re appreciative of what that whole senior class started, for four years really,” said McNeely, entering his sixth season as Lake Norman’s coach. “But we’ve got to put that in the past, learn from it – good and bad – and move on. It’s a new year.”
The Wildcats lost nine starters – three on defense, six on offense –- and 23 seniors overall from last year’s team, which finished a school-record 13-2 and advanced to the semifinals of the NCHSAA 4A playoffs for the first time.
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Among the graduates was quarterback Josh Ladowski, an Associated Press and NCPreps.com all-state pick and the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year last season.
A three-year starter, Ladowski, who will play baseball at North Carolina, broke a 12-year-old NCHSAA record for single-season combined yardage as a senior. His 5,664 yards (3,628 passing, 2,019 rushing) surpassed the 5,494 yards by Independence High’s Chris Leak in 2002. Ladowski also accounted for 77 touchdowns (42 passing, 37 rushing) as a senior.
There’s some competition to replace Ladowski at quarterback, between senior Hayden Carlson, the Wildcats’ backup QB last season and junior Cole Ladowski, Josh Ladowski’s younger brother and the starter on Lake Norman’s junior varsity team the past two years.
“Hayden probably has a leg up right now, simply because of his knowledge of the offense,” McNeely said.
Also graduating were three of Lake Norman’s leading receivers – Corey Joyner (82 receptions, 1,406 yards, 16 touchdowns), Dylan Galbo (41 receptions, 886 yards, 10 TDs) and Baker White (40 receptions, 595 yards, eight TDs) – and linebacker Drew Lambert, second on the team in tackles (105) and tackles for loss (11).
“You can’t complain about what’s not here,” McNeely said. “You’re never going to replace a kid like (Josh Ladowski), you’re never going to replace a Joyner or a Lambert. It’s our job as coaches to get the players that are still here ready to play.”
There is a bright side for the Wildcats: experience, with 13 starters and 24 seniors overall returning.
Among the returnees are six offensive linemen who started all or part of the 2014 season, including 290-pound senior Austin Lee, who had 44 pancake blocks and allowed just three sacks; and 295-pound tackle Nate Pena, who started eight games before suffering a knee injury.
Also back is senior wideout Luke Miller, an Air Force commit who is the team’s leading returning receiver (40 receptions, 574 yards, six TDs); senior running back Austin Vaseleniuck, who ran for 616 yards and six TDs last season; senior defensive tackle Jake Helms, an Elon commit and all-North Piedmont 3A/4A last season; and senior linebacker Jarett Schott, the team’s leading tackler (145 tackles, including 103 solo) in 2014.
“We’re trying to build off of last season, but not harp on it,” McNeely said. “The players we had helped set a bar for this program.
“We don’t see it as a rebuilding year, we’re reloading.
“Some things are going to be different. Every year’s a new year. It’s not going to look the same, it’s not going to be the same, but the expectations we have aren’t going to change.”
Bill Kiser is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.