Veteran Lake George Football Coach Jeff Bennett demonstrates a blocking strategy to several players on the new WarEagles team during their practice Aug. 22. The WarEagles are the result of combining the Lake George football squad and players from Hadley-Luzerne High School, which hasn’t fielded a football team in 30 years.
The athletic programs of Lake George and Hadley-Luzerne high schools have collaborated on a new joint venture — a football team representing both schools.
This week, officials of both schools and team members expressed enthusiasm about the new joint program.
Lake George has a long-standing tradition of hard-hitting, football with an aggressive approach and strategic play-making. Over the last 35 years, the Lake George team has won plenty of league and Sectional trophies — and in 1997 they battled their way to the state championship finals.
But in recent years, with enrollment declining drastically, they’ve had trouble even fielding a team with the minimum number of players required. In 2010, for instance Lake George started the season with only 22 players, and they had to end their football season early because they could only field 15 players due to injuries.
This year’s merger with Hadley-Luzerne, however, has not only brought in 16 more players and enabled Lake George to field a Junior Varsity team for the first time since 2000, but it’s also boosted the Lake George students’ participation in the program, Lake George football coach Jeff Bennett said. This year, four more Lake George students than normal have signed up for football, boosting the merged team to at least 42 players — the most in recent history, he said.
“Football is a numbers game,” Bennett said. “The addition of the Hadley-Luzerne students is really going to change our program and make it very competitive.”
The two schools are merely ten miles apart, and the Hadley-Luzerne players will be practicing and playing on Lake George’s football field. They will be competing in Section II Class C, their traditional level — although Lake George has for several years been playing in Class D.
Hadley-Luzerne has not had a football team since 1983.
Bennett said that the Hadley-Luzerne students on the football team are fitting in well, having gained gridiron experience at the elementary-school level in the Corinth Youth Football League.
Plus, they’ve already proven themselves in the two school’s combined wrestling team, merged in 2008, Several of the Hadley-Luzerne wrestlers were Section II Class C champions. Also, several of the Hadley-Luzerne’s basketball team players — who are accomplished athletes — are now playing football, Bennett said.
The merged team will be adopting the same name as the combined wrestling squad, the WarEagles. The term combines the monikers of the Lake George Warriors and the Hadley-Luzerne Eagles.
“The Hadley-Luzerne players have athletic ability, they work hard, and they’re really coachable,” Bennett said. “They are interested and dedicated to football — they don’t miss practice.”
Matt Howard, a French teacher at Hadley-Luzerne High is serving as an assistant coach for the WarEagles football team. Last year, he served in the same role at Queensbury High School — and the Spartans enjoyed a perfect 13-0 season and captured the state championship.
Howard — who will be concentrating on mentoring the team’s running backs, linebackers and special teams — said the Hadley-Luzerne players were enthusiastic about the new joint gridiron venture.
“The kids are really pumped — they’re excited about playing football — they love it,” he said.
Howard, an All-American fullback at Hobart College, said the new depth of the team due to the merger is likely to boost the level of play.
“The kids are excited to be competing for spots as starters on the team,” he said. “The team has a lot of potential and it’s headed in the right direction.”
Bennett said that several Hadley-Luzerne players already are demonstrating that they’re ready for positions as starters.
Tyler Vanderbogart will likely start as a fullback and defensive tackle — and Mike Sutliff and Derek Visscher will probably both start as defensive ends, Bennett said.
“For sure, we’ve got the talent now,” he said.
The veteran coach added that the merger makes a considerable difference in providing talent for future Varsity WarEagles teams: the collaboration with Hadley-Luzerne has now boosted the Modified football team to 47 players.
Community excited about football revival
At a practice this week, Hadley-Luzerne players also expressed enthusiasm over the merger.
Tyler Vandenbogaard said he appreciated the opportunity to play football, and that it would help keep him in shape for wrestling this winter.
“A lot of my friends have talked about playing football for years, so this means a lot to us,” he said. “We’re getting along great with Lake George — we’re meshing well.”
Tuesday, Hadley-Luzerne High School Principal Beecher Baker said that the football merger was creating excitement among students and parents.
“For years, people wanted football at Hadley-Luzerne,” he said. “Nothing builds school spirit like football.”
Baker said that Corinth Coach Chris Doody had dug out the vintage wooden "War Canoe” trophy from his school’s basement — in the late 1970s and 1980s, it had been presented to the winner of the annual football game between the two rivals. Baker said he and Doody plan to once again put that coveted trophy to use.
“We’ll be reviving an old tradition,” he said.
As Baker programmed his school’s new digital sign Tuesday to announce the first interscholastic football game in 30 years involving local students — the season opener Sept. 5 against Corinth — he realized the significance of what he was doing.
“It was unreal,” he said.