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Local players hope to lead Lake Erie Storm football team to next level  
BY JUSTIN LADA
SENIOR WRITER
PAINESVILLE, OH)The Lake Erie College Storm currently sit at 0-4 in their fifth season of varsity participation in the grueling, Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. A 3-8 team in 2011 was the end of the first four year players in the history of the program, which reached a peak in 2009 with a 7-4 record.

While the 2012 season hasn’t been the start anyone on the team has been looking for, the team’s recruiting philosophy is becoming more crucial and dependent on local players to make an impact.

Despite their record this season, the group of homegrown football players on the roster this season have a chance to make an impact this season and turn things around for the future.

It’s no hidden secret that Lake County, as well as the tri-county area is passionate and prideful about high school football. There are many teams with rich traditions that run deeper than just lining up on Friday nights at 7pm.

While a school like Lake Erie cannot compete with the likes of Ohio State and even the Kent State’s or Ohio Universities of the MAC in terms of recruiting, they have the advantage of being able to see a number of players in  Lake County on Friday night’s, looking to continue their football career at a great school. That is the challenge Lake Erie must succeed in, delving into the great talents that take the field in their own backyard.

In 2012, one gem the Storm staff has found is freshman running back, Anthony Bilal, who suited up just down the road for the Painesville Riverside Beavers last fall.

Lake Erie Storm running back Anthony Bilal
In his first game action, Bilal racked up 99 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown and added a 14 yard catch.

Then in a heartbreaking loss to Wayne State, Bilal broke out in a big way, carrying the ball 27 times for 186 yards and two scores.

Bilal and the Storm hope that the two breakout performances lead to more of the same this year and bigger things in the future. The early season individual success as a freshman has been big for Bilal, especially with  a lot of familiar faces in the crowd.

“It’s a great experience and having all this support is great. It’s good for the community (to have the football program at Lake Erie). That first game a Ferris State was big for my confidence level. I’m stepping up as a freshman. I was a little nervous but then I got on a roll”, Bilal said of playing in the same area he played high school football in and breaking out early on.

While Lake Erie’s turnaround will rely on continuing to recruit locally and hope to get the kind of impact that Bilal has had as a freshman, they also have put themselves in a good position to help players “come home again”.

Perry High School graduate Anthony Kukwa spent his freshman year of college at Ball State. After redshirting with the Cardinals, Kukwa is back in a familiar environment and has had a positive impact on the offense.

Lake Erie wide receiver Anthony Kukwa
“Having this program here made my decision to transfer a lot easier”, Kukwa said of coming back to play in front of friends and family at Lake Erie. “It’s nice to play at home, we just need to come out and win some games. Northeast Ohio is a big football area and it’s great to have this program that local players can be a part of. I just want to make this program great and win as many games as we can.”

On the year, Kukwa leads the Storm with 11 catches for 135 yards and four touchdowns.  Kukwa seems to fit the mold of  the current trend of tight ends; basketball player in high school using that athleticism on the gridiron, as he played basketball, football and baseball for the Perry Pirates. He feels the team has a number of athletic players who, with hard work, have the chance to get things going in the right direction.

“It all starts in the off-season. If you have a big off-season you can have a big year. Basketball definitely helped my jumping, but I try to stay away from basketball now.”

Kukwa was all-Ohio in both sports in high school and certainly carries the kind of maturity of someone who has had success from his hard work, something that could rub off on his teammates over the next four years, as he will have full eligibility at Lake Erie.

When talking about trying to lead teammates, there aren’t many players the team can learn from better then former South High School and University of Akron quarterback, Patrick Nicely.

After being one of the most successful players in Lake County sports history, Nicely was thrown into the fire his freshman year at Akron and played fairly well, beating rival Kent State in his first try.

However coaching changes and transfers ate into Nicely’s playing time as the program headed in a surprising downward spiral.

The 6’4 Willoughby native carries with him, not only a big arm that made him a big time player at South, but now a wealth of experience and maybe a fresh attitude towards the game he loves, that this program needs from a quarterback right now.

Lake Erie Quarterback Patrick Nicely
“I don’t have regrets about Akron, no hard feelings. It is what it is. I have definitely tried to do things different here. Try to create a friendlier atmosphere, like a family. I love it here, and these guys, I would go out and fight for these guys every day”

As far as being able to play minutes away from his hometown, Nicely is enjoying being able to play football in the community he grew up in with all of his family around.

While he will only have one year at Lake Erie, he has the potential to leave an impact on younger players as he wraps up his college career.

“I just want us to develop perseverance. A few balls go our way and we might be 2-2, but that didn’t happen. We’re 0-4, looking ourselves in the mirror and try to step up. I just thank God each day to be able to step on this field”, Nicely said of how he hopes to wrap up his career and season.

Lake Erie Punter/Kicker Sam Marcotte
Another player who has taken away a lot from his experience at Lake Erie and who has a chance to leave a lot for the program is Kicker/punter, Sam Marcotte, a Chardon Hilltopper in his high school days.

A soccer and football player for the Hilltoppers, Marcotte now pulls double duty for the Storm on special teams and these days is extremely important as the defense has struggled to start off the season.

Marcotte, now a senior, was around for a few years with the original recruiting class at Lake Erie , learning from what he said was “a great group of guys who did great coming in here and not knowing how things were going to go”.

Playing close to home has been a positive thing for Marcotte, who says his family is at every game and still benefits from getting to work with his kicking coach at Chardon, who works up at Lake Erie College.

Marcotte is well conditioned to be able to handle kicking field goals, which he is 6-8 on this season and a perfect 13-13 on extra points, as well as punting (38 yard average) thanks to his soccer days at Chardon.

“Kicking and punting is a lot easier than any 90 minute soccer game”.

As he also winds down his college career, Marcotte has enjoyed playing in front of family and friends and enjoys the extra pressure from having so many people from high school watching him every Saturday. Like Nicely, he also has a lot to leave behind for these players.

“I just hope we grow closer together as a team and finish strong”.

However this season ends and whatever goes on with the program as it hopes to turn things around in its 5th season and beyond, it’s local players like these four that Lake Erie must rely on to build a program that is capable of handling the kind of challenge that the GLIAC presents. Taking advantage of their greatest resource, their local talent pool, and offering the chance for players to come home again.  

jlada@lakecounty-sentinel.com or follow Justin on Twitter @NextYearinCle or @SentinelCle_JLA

POSTED 09/29/2012 14:11

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