The Lancaster Bruins are finally picking on football teams their own size.
After two years of roughing up smaller schools in an effort to rebuild the Bruins program, Bobby Collins’ team is facing up to competition in the 4A and 5A classifications.
“I think we’re ready,” senior quarterback Jamias Shropshire said after Wednesday’s practice. “The focus level and the senior leadership has stepped up a lot this year. We’ve kind of gelled together in the locker room and outside the locker room. We have the best talent so far that coach Collins has had here, so I think we’re gonna match up pretty good.”
If you want to be playing in December, you’re gonna have to play some 5A football teams.
Lancaster coach Bobby Collins
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Lancaster hosted Fort Mill, the biggest school on this season’s schedule with over 1,800 students, Thursday night in its home opener.
The Yellow Jackets entered the game very unlucky to not be 2-0 after narrowly losing to Spring Valley in Week Zero when a Fort Mill player failed to scoop up a loose ball for what would have been a winning touchdown in the last seconds. Ed Susi’s club didn’t leave it as late last week, handling West Florence 40-27 on the road.
During its bye week, Lancaster returned to the fundamentals, almost like a week extension on August preseason practice.
“Ed Susi’s a great football coach,” said Collins. “He’s gonna come in with a great game plan so I wanted to make sure we were focused on the things we need to do to be successful.”
There was plenty of success during Collins’ first two years at Lancaster, while has an enrollment of 1,355 this year, including playoff berths both seasons. Neighboring Andrew Jackson was smashed 48-0 in last year’s season opener, before Lewisville took a 42-12 beating, the kind of results that kneaded previously bruised egos. The Bruins started 6-1 in 2014 and 7-0 last season, before late season slumps against tougher competition.
“It boosted confidence a lot,” senior defensive lineman Houston Brantley said. “It gave us the mentality that we can beat anybody and in those big games, you need that.”
1,400.8 is the average enrollment of the 10 schools Lancaster plays in the 2016 regular season. That’s a jump of nearly 500 students from the Bruins’ 2014-15 opponents, which averaged 907 students.
Collins doesn’t make his team’s schedule, but it was beneficial for the Bruins to smack around smaller schools for a few years.
“You want to get the morale back, you want people to come back in the stands, you want people to believe in Lancaster football,” he said.
The program has 20 more players in it than when Collins first arrived and community interest is as strong as ever. The strength of the team and its support will be tested this fall when Lancaster gets back to playing schools its own size. Lancaster’s 10-game regular season schedule the last two years included seven schools with less than 1,000 students; the Bruins play just two schools like that in 2016 and 2017.
Collins’ team could have a worse record this season, and still be stronger than either of the last two seasons.
Comparing the enrollment numbers of Lancaster’s regular season opponents in 2015 and 2016 (opponents are listed numerically in order of the schedule):
Lancaster didn’t have the option of playing some of the smaller schools on its previous schedule. Andrew Jackson – a team Lancaster has played almost every season during athletics director Mark Strickland’s 31 years at the school – decided not to play the Bruins; likewise for Lewisville, which determined a school with 1,000 more students wasn’t a good matchup.
“Our schedule is a lot tougher this year,” said Strickland. “It wasn’t a conscious effort to get rid of anybody or anything like that. It’s just what happened.”
A big part of the Bruins’ recent success – consecutive eight-win campaigns – was built on focus and discipline. Brantley credited Collins with restoring those characteristics to the program.
“Even though we’ve been playing smaller schools the last two years, we kept that same mentality, that same effort, whether we’re playing South Pointe or someone like Lewisville,” he said.
Nobody remembers those 8-2 teams or those state championship teams. We’re trying to be the first one to bring one back.
Lancaster QB Jamias Shropshire
The mentality is conspicuous because confidence was in short-supply when Collins arrived from Hough in the spring of 2014. But Lancaster Bruins should be full of belief because the program is full of meaty size, lean athleticism and talented football players.
“When we went out and seen other teams, we were like, ‘they don’t match up with us,’” said Shropshire. “Defensive-wise? We’re nasty. Physical-wise, I think we match up with anybody.”
Lancaster now has to turn the talk into results, something it can begin to do during its non-region slate against the likes of Nation Ford, Chester and Lugoff-Elgin. The Bruins would have to do that regardless of which schools they’re playing.
“I think we’ve got a great group of kids and I think we’ve got the best coaching staff that’s ever been through here,” Collins said. “We’re gonna line up every Friday and face them as they come.”