Story by Brad Bournival
Photos by Larry Bennet
The adage around coaching circles when taking over programs is you want to be the man that replaced the man that replaced the legend, not follow the legend.
Larry Laird doesn't know how to do that.
In taking over as the head coach for Strongsville's football team, Laird follows Russ Jacques.
That's Jacques, who led the Mustangs to 12 playoff appearances, eight conference titles and three Division I Regional final appearances. Jacques also had assistant coaching stints at Wisconsin, Northwestern, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Ohio University and Bowling Green.
It's not a big deal to Laird because a year ago, he took over for Dave Dlugosz at Avon Lake. All Dlugosz did was lead the Shoremen to 18 Southwestern Conference titles and a 2003 Division II state championship and 2004 state runner-up finish.
"I think that's overrated to be honest," Laird said. "To me, I welcome the challenge. The job opened up in Strongsville. It intrigued me. I was approached by some individuals at Strongsville. It became more intriguing.
"The more I looked at it, the more I liked it. Coaches are competitive in nature and I'm just like anybody else. I welcome the challenge of playing the best of the best.
"The Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division this year and then the Greater Cleveland Conference in 2015, I don't think you'll find a better public school football conference in the state of Ohio," he said.
There might not be a better person to take a program to the next level either based on Laird's last two head coaching stints.
In 2010, Laird coached for a season at Medina and led the Bees to their second playoff appearance in school history. Medina also picked up its first playoff win when the huge underdog Bees knocked off the top-ranked Canton McKinley Bulldogs in the opening round of the Division I, Region 2 playoffs during a 9-3 season.
Last year, the long-time Avon Lake assistant coach led the Shoremen to a playoff appearance during an 8-3 season.
"The biggest thing is always stick with the fundamentals," Laird said. "At Avon Lake, we got a little bit of humble pie in Week 1 (a 41-10 loss to Avon), went back to the fundamentals, and we bounced back.
"We'll work hard to get back fundamentally to the basic aspects of the game. There are no cupcakes on the schedule," he said.
As for the weight of the NOC schedule and the onus to follow Jacques, Laird is ready to make noise once again.
"There's talent there, just like at Medina, just like at Brunswick, just like at Mentor," he said. "When you have 2,200 students in a school, you're going to find 11 guys you can put on the field. I feel very confident.
"Our four goals are to win the opener, win the conference, make the playoffs and win the state championship. I think we can do that at Strongsville. Rome wasn't built in a day, but we can lay the foundation," he added.
Former Avon standout and current Michigan player Ross Douglas called the NFL's 7-on-7 High School Player Development National Tournament the most fun he's ever had playing the game. Now, Eagles wide receiver Garett Choat will get to see what it's all about.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Choat started from a field of 1,500 hopefuls and made the 12-man team that will make up the Cleveland Browns July 14 and 15 in Indianapolis at the 32-team event.
"It means a lot to me," Choat said. "I was talking to Ross Douglas. He was telling me how fun it was. It made me feel like I wanted to be a part of it.
"I gave my all. I feel like going to Indianapolis, there will be a lot of (college) coaches there, but there will be times where it will be fun."
Choat made the original cut from 1,500 to 140 before standing out Sunday as the team was whittled down to its final roster.
Six-year coach Chris Medaglia, who is also the athletic director at Valley Forge, will try and equal or better his AFC runner-up performance from 2010 with this year's squad.
"Making the team was extremely difficult," he said. "There was so much talent in the room. It's a hard process.
"You work and try to be noticed. You make a play here, you make a play there. You shine and you're one of the 12. Instead of representing your school at the camp, now you're representing the Browns at the NFL tournament," he said.
Clearview quarterback Roger Engle and slot receiver Lance Billings made the squad, as did Canton McKinley quarterback Chance Young, Coventry wide receiver Zack Lake, Villa Angela-St. Joseph receiver Marvel Ross, Euclid receiver Keon Williams, Elyria receiver Mike Church, Youngstown Christian receiver Kimone Bryant, Brush free safety Teondre Reynolds and the Padua tandem of receiver Nick Medaglia and free safety Colin Fyock.
Headed to Church
A gigantic name has emerged out of Valley Forge in senior Richard Worship. An incredible running back tucked away at a school that was rebuilding last year, the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Worship has certainly drawn the interest of Division I schools around the nation.
As the college camp season hits its stride, Worship has offers from Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Ohio, Purdue, Tennessee State and Toledo.
"Richie is a great kid," Patriots coach Jamie Vanek said. "He's the backbone of our team right now. Obviously, a lot of people know that because they're recruiting him like crazy.
"He's a great athlete, but an even better individual and person. I'd be honored to have him as my own son, that's how great he is. He's helping turn our team around," Vanek said.
Those in the know expect even bigger things from Worship this year after the standout rushed for 1,601 yards last season on 213 carries and added 19 touchdowns.
Worship also made 19 catches for 91 yards and added a score as well. Currently, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are also showing interest.
Often times, the difference between winning and losing in the first few weeks of football comes down to experience. If that's the case, Avon will be sitting pretty as the Eagles' senior class has accumulated a 36-5 (.878) record the last three seasons. That mark includes two regional final appearances and a trip to the state final.
Next up in the Beafanatic.com coverage area would be Avon Lake (24-8, .750), which has made it to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons followed by Brecksville (21-11, .656), which punched a postseason ticket last year.
Despite having not reached the playoffs since 2005, North Olmsted has been a respectable 19-11 (.633), edging out Westlake (18-13, .581) and North Royalton (18-14, .563), who each have made the playoffs within the last three campaigns.
Brunswick (16-14, .533), Berea-Midpark (14-16, .467), Rocky River (13-17, .433), Lakewood (11-19, .367), Olmsted Falls (10-21, .323), Medina (9-21, .300), Strongsville (8-22, .267) and Bay (7-23, .233) round out the Beafanatic.com squads.
Only Olmsted Falls of the final bunch made the playoffs, reaching the regional quarterfinals in 2011. For Berea-Midpark, the better records between Berea and Midpark in 2011 and 2012 were used to determine the three-year record since the two merged last year.
(You can follow Brad Bournival on Twitter @bbournival, and follow our website too @BeAFanatic. We're also there for all you Facebook fans: BeAFanatic.com.)