By VINCE PELUSO
SAYBROOK TOWNSHIP —
When first-year Lakeside coach Frank Hall took over the Dragons’ football program, the first thing he talked about was the team’s need to finish games.
Lakeside was able to do that in wins over Youngstown East and Jefferson, but the problem reared its ugly head again on Friday night when the Dragons were outscored, 27-6, Riverside in the fourth quarter of a 44-26 Premier Athletic Conference loss.
“We have a terrible track record of finishing games. That’s on me,” Hall said. “I gotta change that. That’s something I have to instill in our guys, foot to the metal and finish. That’s something we gotta do is, finish.”
Lakeside looked like it survived a scare when it turned the ball over on its own 5, setting Riverside side up with a first and goal with the Beavers trailing 20-17 with 11:43 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But on first and goal, Marcus Jones (8 rushes, 68 yards, 2 touchdowns) was stripped and Lakeside’s Kyle Downs recovered the ball and raced 98 yards for a touchdown, putting Lakeside ahead, 26-17.
“Huge play, Tyree Meeks made a great hit on the ball and Kyle Downs made a tremendous play taking it, that was a great effort,” Hall said. “For 41 minutes, our kids just gave great effort. One of the things we talked about from Day 1 is finishing. Finishing. Gotta be able to finish against a good football team.”
That would be the last time Lakeside crossed the goal line, though.
Riverside (2-2, 1-0) came roaring back less than a minute later when Jones scored from 18 yards out to cut the deficit to 26-24.
Then, the defining play of the game happened.
After a Lakeside (2-2, 0-1) three and out, the Dragons looked to punt but the snap went into the end zone and the Dragons’ punter opted not to fall on the ball for the safety, allowing Eric Stroski to pounce on it and give Riverside a 30-26 lead.
“It’s one of those things,” Riverside coach Dave Bors said of the play. “I’m sure Coach Hall is going to chew that young man out tomorrow or tonight, but we goofed up on the first kickoff of the game (Lakeside recovered the opening kick but was later stopped on the goal line). We realized it was a live ball, lights are on but you get a little wide-eyed. It’s just two teams learning about themselves, going through some growing pains. We both had our share of interesting plays, I’d say that.”
From there, Riverside got two more stops that Riverside turned into a 28-yard touchdown run from Jones and a 35-yard scoring scamper from Cameron Jefferies to cap the scoring.
“I don’t know how much longer we’re gonna last if we keep doing this,” Bors said. “Hearts racing and stuff, these kids aren’t gonna have a coaching staff. The kids are resilient, I’m so proud of them. (But) we can’t keep doing this because we’re going to get caught. We know we can’t keep digging ourselves holes like this.
“They return the fumble on us, it was a great and savvy play by their guy. Coach Hall and their staff, we know those guys aren’t quitting and coming right back at us. We have a lot of faith in our kids and we have a great staff.”
Lakeside established itself, particularly its passing game, in the early going of the game.
Tyler Loftus (20-34, 189 yards, 3 touchdowns) was 11 of 17 in the first half passing and connected on scoring strikes of 17 yards to Demetrius Green, 4 to Johnny Evans and 11 to Marcell Ballenger.
“We knew we’d be able to throw a little bit,” Hall said. “Tyler Loftus is getting better every week, starting to spread the ball around.”
Eight different receivers caught passes from Loftus and his final scoring strike, to Ballenger, came on the opening possession of the second half, putting Lakeside up 20-7.
But from that point forward, the Dragons only picked up two more first downs — one on the ensuing drive, that resulted in a fumble, and the second came on a Riverside penalty on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
“I believe this, our bodies can accomplish a lot of things, we can withstand a lot of things,” Hall said of how his team needs to learn to finish. “We have to convince our heart and our mind that we can do things to the point of exhaustion. Do things beyond what we think we can do. We’re not there yet. We need to convince ourselves a little more.
“That’s my job, I need to work on that. The kids fought hard for me. Tonight’s on me. Totally 100 percent on me.”
From the opposite sideline, Bors wasn’t nearly as hard on Hall as the first-year coach was on himself.
“I’ll tell you what, give credit to Coach Hall,” he said. “Lakeside is going to be contended with very soon. Drawing them first in the PAC, I’m looking at it and saying, ‘Oh God, they’ve got all this emotion and Coach Hall is there. We’re coming into a hornet’s nest tonight.’ We knew it!
“It was a good football game and I’m proud to get the win.”