The next great football town
As the Lansing High football team huddled around its Class 4A regional playoff runner-up plaque on Saturday night at Frank Graham Field, most of the Lions tried to hide tears.
None of them wanted to be seen crying on the field after their season-ending 36-7 loss to No. 1-ranked Holton. They wanted to save the wet eyes for solitude of the locker room, but they couldn't. Heart-felt speeches from coaches tugged at the players' emotions, but none made the tears pour more than the words of assistant coach Aaron Wecas.
"Driving down Main St. and seeing all of the billboards saying 'Go Lions' : That sent chills down my spine," Wecas said.
And with that, the sniffles grew louder, eyes grew redder and tears flowed harder. Wecas' point wasn't that about a half-dozen local businesses had taken the time to recognize the football team. His point was that those billboards symbolized a community becoming a serious football town.
People have taken notice of the growth of the LHS football program during the past two years, and it was this group of players who generated that excitement.
"Our kids have provided this town and community with a lot of good football this year," LHS coach Bill Pekarek said. "We've won a lot of football games. They're league champions. They're district champions. They're bidistrict champions. We won the second playoff game in school history against Perry. We were in this game again."
The community has taken notice of the gridiron success and embraced it. The crowd at the season-opener against Tonganoxie was standing-room-only. It was twice as large against Holton. People showed up early to get a good seat and to celebrate the day. Families of about 20 players showed up as early as three hours before kickoff to throw a tailgate party on the elementary school parking lot. Students came over to join them and mooch free food.
The talk was all about football, about what the kids had accomplished so far and about the possibility of taking down Holton.
While chatting with a few of the families at the tailgate, one parent asked me how Holton had been such a dominant program for so many years. The answer has multiple parts, all of which we're starting to see here in Lansing.
First, a strong youth program is important. Strong programs result from players being disciplined on the basics at a young age. This year's senior class is the first group to go all the way from the Lansing Parks and Recreation football program to the high school level. LHS is 17-5 in the last two years with that group.
The city program continues to flourish with record numbers of participants in the youth flag football and tackle football programs. That has led to strong teams at Lansing Middle School and, ultimately, an improved high school program.
Second is tradition. The Wildcats have won 46 of their last 50 football games, including a state championship in 2003. Kids in Holton grow up attending football games and dreaming of one day playing for the high school team. We're starting to see that here, too.
The final key to a building a winning program is having community support. That's where the store billboards and pregame tailgates come into play. The players put in the work in the weight room and on the practice field to get bigger, stronger and faster. They put in the effort to win games, but the atmosphere surrounding the game is what helps give a team its swagger.
The drive to school on game day is different when you pass a row of "Go Lions!" signs. The tailgating fans send a message to players that people believe in them. The packed stands, the roar of the crowd, the posters and the painted faces all make a difference and contribute to the success of the program.
Players notice when that stuff happens, and they play harder because of it.
"That really meant something," senior fullback/linebacker Lance Fink said of the community support. "We're trying to make traditions here."
The Lions have established a tradition of playing winning football the last two years. Now the community is making a new tradition: It's becoming a true football town.
- Chris Wristen's column appears occasionally in the print edition, as well as online at lansingcurrent.com.