Lakeview Academy has endured some rough stretches in recent years. But Lions coach Matthew Gruhn may have the senior leadership to right the ship in 2018.
Bryce Blackwell, Ian Echols, Palmer Ferguson, Tyler Grabau, Campbell Melson, KJ Millwood and Andrew Peck represent a poised senior class which will be the glue for a program in the hunt for a playoff berth and its first winning mark since 2012.
“It’s an honor and blessing to go to practice with them, and it’s an honor to go to battle with them on Friday nights,” said Gruhn, who in his 12th season at Lakeview Academy is now the longest tenured head coach in Hall County.
While Gruhn said there always seems to be an excitement for this time of year, he feels pretty good about the shape of the program as the Aug. 24 opener against Strong Rock Christian approaches. Echols voiced his confidence in the Lions changing the narrative and making the playoffs in 2018. But it will all stem from the tone set by this senior class.
“I think this is going to be the best leadership we’ve ever had on our football team, and our guys are really stepping up as seniors, and we’re really gonna carry the team this year,” Echols said.
The Lions also add depth to their coaching staff in 2018. Recently-retired Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller joins Lakeview Academy as an assistant coach, after guiding the Red Elephants to 16-straight playoff appearances and the 2012 state championship.
“He’s going to give us advice on every aspect of our program,” Gruhn said of Miller. “...That’s really good, because he brings so much experience, so much success. ...Certainly we’ve got some ideas, we’ll go with him and just cater to what our kids do well. But he’ll certainly have a big influence.”
Lakeview Academy Times Sports Media Day Highlights
The Lions welcome back five starters on offense, not including last season’s Region 8-A Offensive Player of the Year. The Lions waved goodbye to quarterback Alec Bornhorst, who threw for 2,044 yards, ran for another 767 and totaled 25 touchdowns to pace the Lions attack as a senior.
Gruhn said he is comfortable with rotating two players at quarterback: freshman Luke Bornhorst and rising sophomore Ben Puckett.
Gruhn said both of his young signal callers have shown great poise in the offseason. Gruhn indicated that Puckett has a small edge over the freshman Bornhorst, Alec’s younger brother.
“They are both progressing, they both have great attitudes, and time will tell — certainly Ben is in the lead right now — but it’s going to be a hard act to follow,” Gruhn said. “Alec played pretty well for us the last couple of years.”
Following the departure of Dillan Knepp, Lakeview Academy will look to two individuals to bring balance to the offense at running back. Junior Brandon Wilson and freshman Sam Perry will share carries from the backfield.
Quite possibly the largest piece to this offense will be All-Region talent KJ Millwood, who is the top returning wide receiver in Hall County. Millwood recorded 1,173 receiving yards as the top target of Bornhorst last season. Jordan Thomas is another developing target expected to line up opposite of Millwood.
After only generating five sacks and a pair of tackles for a loss in 2017, Gruhn envisions a more pressure-oriented Lions unit in this 4-2-5 set for 2018. And the one to set that gear will be Echols.
In addition to holding down the trenches along the offensive line, Echols (40 tackles, sack) is one of three returning starters on defense who should quarterback the group at linebacker for the Lions.
“(Ian) brings the energy, he brings the craziness, brings the toughness, the vocal leader that you need and the practice habits that you want,” Gruhn said.
Experience is aplenty in this front seven. Echols is joined by senior Campbell Melson at linebacker, while seniors Palmer Ferguson and Bryce Blackwell facilitate two of the starting spots along the defensive line.
As for the secondary, Gruhn looks to juniors Jordan Thomas and Brandon Wilson to lead the way at defensive back.
It’s still developing, but sophomore Bodie Blackwell should handle the bulk of the kicking duties for the Lions, per Gruhn.
Experience should help the Lions in their search of a first-ever playoff berth. But first, they’ll have to combat arguably one of the most talented Single-A regions in the state. In 2017, the Lions were 1-8 in the 8-A, a region that sent six of the 10 teams to the state playoffs.
Athens Academy (Class A runner-up), Prince Avenue Christian (state semifinalist) and Commerce (second round) were three from that stack to leave a dint in the postseason. It’s a testament to the continued progression of each school in the region, says Gruhn.
“Percentage wise, that’s one of the most,” added Gruhn on the number of playoff teams from the 8-A. “And we have other teams coming on — Riverside’s coming on, doing a great job, and they’re our neighbors down the road. ...Every year it seems to get better and better. And the challenge is, we gotta get better and better.”