Belleville East football starts season with new coach
A former associate head coach and defensive coordinator at McKendree University, Michael Harrison takes over a Belleville East football program that has won just four of 27 games over the past three seasons.
But winning football games hasn’t been Harrison’s only priority since taking over the Lancers from Kris Stephens, who resigned last fall after four seasons.
“My main job is to teach these 13- to 15-year-old boys — and that’s what they are when they get here — how to be young men, how to take care of their business and how to do the right thing,’’ Harrison said. “When you take care of your business, when you do the right thing, when you show up on time and when you turn in your homework, you will win football games.”
Having athletic talent doesn’t hurt, either. After an offseason of weight training and conditioning, the Lancers head into their Aug. 30 season-opening home game against St. Louis Chaminade with an optimistic outlook.
Numbers in the Lancers’ program are up. At a recent Thursday practice, a total of 125 players took part in preseason drills.
Harrison, who was hired in December, acknowledges a difference between coach college and high school players, but says teaching football is the bottom line.
“I’m having a blast,’’ Harrison said. “Obviously it’s different than what I have been doing, but for those 2 1/2 to three hours that we get to play football every day, it’s still 11-on-11. You are still teaching kids. The lessons and where they are in the process is a little different, but they want to be the best that they can be, just like the college guys.”
Outscored 347-147 last season, the Lancers need to improve on both sides of the football in 2019.
On offense, junior quarterback Lucas Maue (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) threw for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns in a backup role. Harrison said Maue has been impressive in summer workouts and has a good understanding of the offense.
“Lucas played a little bit last year and had some success,’’ Harrison said. . “He has a strong arm, and while we don’t want him running the football every play, he has the mobility to run and make plays when the situation arises. He’s a multi-sport kid, and so he’s a good athlete.’’
The Lancers also have strong all-around athletes in the backfield and at wide receiver. Harrison said East will rely heavily on a solid group of wide receivers, including junior Jaelyn Ford (14 catches, 173 yards, 1 TD) and seniors Yogi Flager (22 catches, 449 yards, TD), Kevaughn Gaines ( 9 catches, 98 yards) and Jyaire Bowens.
Also expected to play a key role on both sides of the ball is senior Kameron Sloan. A transfer from Collinsville, Sloan caught 16 passes for 242 and a touchdown last season and also averaged nearly seven yards per carry as a running back.
The Lancers also have speed in the backfield with the return of Jeremy Schooler, who ran for more than 400 yards and averaged nearly five yards per carry. Sloan and Bruce Harris will also be counted on in the backfield.
“We’ve got four or five other guys as well. We’ve got a good group there,” Harrison said. “We may not have the scholarship guys, but going up against teams this summer and seeing what other teams have, we match up pretty good.’’
Up front, the Lancers will be led by one of the conference’s best in senior center Josh Suttles. Senior Carlos Blanco will be a starter at tackle, while junior Michael Gavin will be a mainstay at one of the guard spots. Several juniors are also competing for playing time.
Suttles, Hayden Howard and Robert Williams will be major factors on the defensive line, while Josiah Flager-Haren returns at defensive end.
Seniors PJ Hamlin and Shamario Williams will start the season at linebackers. Flager, Sloan and Harris will be in the defensive backfield.
East should be an improved football team in 2019. But starting the season against an always-strong Chaminade team and then Highland will give the Lancers a good early test.
Harrison, like almost everyone, expects East St. Louis will be the team to beat in the SWC, along with Edwardsville.
But “on any given night in the SWC, anything can happen,” Harrison said. “If you don’t bring your A-game each week, there is a good chance you may come away with a loss.
“As for us, I like what I see. We’re working hard on getting better every day. That’s all you can ask for.”