GROTON, Mass. -- Paul Zukauskas, the third year coach at Lawrence Academy, prefers to weigh in on the positives within his football program instead of dark cloud that still lingers from a checkered past.
The Spartans begin ISL play on Saturday at 1 p.m., traveling to defending two-time league champion Governor’s Academy. This game is one in a many steps taken by the Spartans in their efforts to distance themselves from the negativity that has embedded them from a couple of years back.
But the attitude throughout the team has remained the same. The outlook is to build off of last year’s 6-2 campaign and continue to move forward in a positive manner.
“You constantly want to improve but ultimately it’s up to the kids,” said Zukauskas. “It’s not about me and my program. It’s about the kids and in particular our seniors and their leadership. I'm not a big believer of going 8-0 as a goal. I'm more of a believer of us being as good as we can be. That's the goal everytime we go out to practice. There is an urgency here to get better and that's what we preach.”
Because of the sanctions levied against them in 2011 by the ISL after finding significant evidence of violations committed within the program which included wrongful funding to student-athletes and improper off-season practices, LA begins its third and final year under these sanctions. Among the penalties handed down includes a banishment to partake in any postseason NEPSAC Bowls this season, even if the Spartans should qualify.
In 2011 it was revealed that the football program, under the direction of then head coach Mike Taylor, committed infractions during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the same two years LA won ISL titles. At the time, the ISL kept the violations quiet but it was later revealed by former school headmaster Scott Wiggins that funding was provided to student-athletes that went beyond their demonstrated need. He also said the team performed off-season summer training sessions -- a violation according to ISL rules. In addition to the three-year bowl ban, the Spartans were also stripped of their two ISL championships. The conflict eventually would lead to the resignations of Taylor, Wiggins and former athletic director Kathy Noble.
The memories of these transgressions are nothing more than a forgone conclusion by the present day Spartans. They are well-aware of what transpired and the penalties which accompanied them yet they say it means nothing. Right now the only thing that matters is playing football and making the most out of the 2013 season.
“We really have no control over what happened in the past but we can control this season,” said senior lineman and co-captain Andrew Crane. “That is all we are focusing on. We just want to go out and be the best we can be.”
Zukauskas -- a former BC High and Boston College standout, who spent five seasons in the NFL playing for the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers -- walked into a program at the height of turmoil. Nevertheless, Zukauskas has kept a positive attitude throughout and continues to maintain a strong belief that things will turn around. In his first season, Zukauskas finished 3-5 before the success of last year.
“There is so much opportunity here to do something special and that's the way we are looking at it,” he said. “If we can compete and be as good as we can then what a great message we are sending to everybody that despite the adversity we're still as good as we can be. Yes we want to play in a NEPSAC Bowl again soon but what is even better is to have this adversity we are currently under and be able to overcome it.”
LA remains primed to improve upon last season’s success. The Spartans return a number of veteran players, most-notably at the skill positions. They are led by senior quarterback Kyle Howes, junior receivers Chris Garrison, Austin Luckey and tight end Kyle Gillem-Hughes. Junior Nick Schutz and freshman AJ Dillon are expected to carry much of the load at running back. The Spartans are also well-stacked up front. Along with Crane, others anchoring the line include seniors Rocco Daigneault , Cornelius Griffith, Will Blundo, along with juniors Islambek Mussayev, Craig Waldie and David Pyne.
“We return a lot of starters and have some talented new kids who have come in,” Crane said. “Coming into this year we seem much-more focused and there is a lot of enthusiasm. We are all conditioned and ready to go.”
Adds Daigneault, also a co-captain, “We’ve bonded as a family here. At the start of pre-season we spent a lot of time together and grew together. We are a real tight-knit group ready to play some football.”
While depth in some areas remains a concern, it may ring no louder than on defense. LA graduated two of its top defensive backs -- Jalen Myrie and Darrien Myers a year ago. However a defense, ranked second in the ISL last year, is far from being gutted. Luckey, who also plays linebacker, was the Spartans leading tackler a year ago. Sophomore linebacker Jake Cassidy is also expected to make an impact. Howes, another co-captain playing safety along with Schutz at defensive back, will lead the secondary.
Perhaps the biggest intangible so far has been attitude. The Spartans contend they are thoroughly focused and determined to bring the program back to the elite status.
“Everyone comes to practice more concentrated than any other team I’ve ever been around,” said Howes. “Everyone is totally focused. We have film and white board sessions and everyone comes with notebook in hand ready to learn.”
LAWRENCE ACADEMY AT A GLANCE
Head Coach: Paul Zukauskas (3rd year, 9-7)
Last Year: 6-2
Key Returners: Sr. OL/DL Andrew Crane (6-1, 270), Sr. OL/DL Rocco Daigneault (6-1, 230), Sr. QB/S Kyle Howes (6-3, 200), Sr. OL/DL Cornelius Griffith (6-1, 220), Sr. OL/LB Will Blundo (5-10, 205), Jr. WR/LB Chris Garrison (6-3, 217), Jr. FB/WR/LB Austin Luckey (6-1, 210), Jr. RB/DB Nick Schutz (6-0, 185), Jr. TE/DL Kyle Gillen-Hughes (6-2, 210), Jr. OL/DL Craig Waldie (6-2, 210), Jr. OL/DL Islambek Mussayev (6-4, 240).
Top Newcomers: Jr. OL/DL David Pyne (6-3, 285), Soph. LB Jake Cassidy (5-10, 170), Fr. RB A.J. Dillon (6-0, 205)
Outlook: The Spartans have enough talent to remain in the upper-echelon of the ISL standings throughout the season. LA primary strength will be its offensive and defensive line, both rock solid and spearheaded by by Crane, Daigneault and Milford High transfer Pyne. This wall should open up large spaces for RBs Schutz and newcomer Dillon, and give Howes enough time to stand in the pocket, find his receivers and pick apart opposing defenses. Defense will be the big question early on with the departures of DBs Myrie and Myers. Howes and Schutz are expected to take control of the secondary but will get much-needed help from LBs Luckey, Blundo, Garrison and Cassidy. Despite not being eligible for postseason play because of the sanctions handed down in 2011, LA remains highly-optimistic that the program has moved beyond the issues which occurred in 2009 and 2010 under former coach Mike Taylor.