Zach Hayes (15) pursues a Marquette receiver at the goal line. Hayes will be a leader on the defense next year after establishing himself in that role this season.
Zach Hayes (15) pursues a Marquette receiver at the goal line. Hayes will be a leader on the defense next year after establishing himself in that role this season.
Despite missing the playoffs, Lakeland’s football season was full of plenty reason to be optimistic about the program.  

They won four games for only the third time in the last 10 years. They beat Merrill for the first time in nine years. And they crushed a Hayward team that would eventually make the playoffs.

These 2018 season highlights were all indicators to head coach Dan Barutha the Thunderbirds are heading in the right direction.

“We saw tangible progress regarding where we want to take the program and that was really good,” Barutha said. “We doubled our win total from last year.”

After crushing Hayward 43-13 in the opening game, the Thunderbirds hit a rough patch and dropped four in a row, including a two point heartbreaker to Medford 34-32. However, they would then finish the season winning three out of their last four games.

They had the long awaited win against Merrill. A gutsy victory over Marquette, Mich., for homecoming, a game in which they had to stop the Redmen in the red zone on three consecutive drives to seal it. And they won the Northwoods Axe game against Rhinelander to close out the 2018 campaign.

For Barutha, the biggest two wins were the last two, not because of what was at stake, but because of what wasn’t.

“Even after we lost to Ashland and were left with two games that we were really playing for pride, the character of our kids and the way they responded to that, being able to not only get four wins, but have a home winning record, I think that pays dividends for our program but it shows the caliber of our senior class,” he said.

As for the guys coming back, they are starting to realize those seniors have started something special.

“They definitely know that,” Barutha said. “They also know that we realistically could be a playoff team and should be playing this week. Not only could, but we probably should.”

A major reason they are not still playing was a loss in Ashland in which they fumbled the ball away on their first two possessions and were unable to regain their footing. But just a couple weeks later, against Rhinelander, they didn’t let an opening fumble rattle them in any way and for Barutha, that, in itself, was major progress.

“We showed a strong capability to overcome some of our mistakes and that really goes back to the fact of learning not only how to compete and learning how to win but being able to trust each other and trust your teammates,” he said. “When something goes wrong spit it off and move on to the next play. Don’t dwell on it. And from that stand point I saw major strides that we took this year.”

Another area that took major strides was the defensive line, and in particular, the play of junior Devon Deverney.  

“Devon Deverney really came along and came into his own as the season went along and he became a force for us on the defensive line,” Barutha said.

He also like the defensive progress of junior Zach Hayes.

“Zach really took ownership of the defense, being the quarterback of the defense, with all the play calls and being able to make the secondary adjustments. I thought he showed tremendous ability, his football knowledge, his instinct, and just the communication aspect that he has.”

On offense, Barutha was really impressed with how his line was able to transform the identity of the team from an air assault to a ground attack.  

This will be important in 2019 because the T-Birds lose receivers Ray Rentmeester and Jake Rexroade to graduation. The two combined for over 1,400 yards in 2018

“Our offensive line certainly improved, and it’s really all five of them. From Nick Kizorek to Brady Olson, Donavin Schillinger and Andre Starynski and then Devon Deverney,” said Barutha. “We ended the year with a few 100 yard rushing games and we were less reliant on the pass and became more reliant on the run. We proved to be able to run the ball very effectively at the end of the year.”

If they pick up 2019 where they left off this season, next year at this time the T-Birds may still be running.

Jacob Friede may be reached at jacob@lakelandtimes.com or sports@lakelandtimes.com.