The Lakewood High School varsity football team stands at 2-6 on the season and 0-2 in Region VI-4A heading into today's 7:30 p.m. matchup against Darlington at J. Frank Baker Stadium.
The Falcons, who are led by former Sumter High School head coach John Jones, are 1-6 overall and 0-1 in region play. The winner of this game will put itself in a strong position to grab one of the playoff spots in the region.
And while that isn't anywhere near where head coach Larry Cornelius wants his team to be, especially in light of the fact that the Gators have played well at times in close losses to good teams like Manning, Colleton County and Lugoff-Elgin, he said he has seen progress this season, particularly in some of the 'little things' that can take several seasons to build into a program.
"When you take over a program, there are a lot of little things that you've got to fix, and they can take a long time - several years," said Cornelius. "We've moved the ball pretty well offensively this year, but we've gotten a turnover bug. We put the ball on the ground too many times, particularly in our earlier games, and it cost us some wins.
"You've always got to work on discipline, fundamentals and football IQ - those are the big three for me," Cornelius said. "Coming in, our football IQ wasn't great, and that just takes a lot of practice, a lot of classroom stuff, experience, all those wrap in. Discipline on and off the field, you've got to do right - that's our main thing, do right."
The Gators enter the game against the Falcons coming off a 41-18 loss to perennial powerhouse Hartsville in a game Lakewood led 12-0 at the end of the first quarter and trailed only 13-12 at halftime. Hartsville was able to take advantage of a key defensive injury to Lakewood senior defensive end Leroy Blanding and put the game away with a series of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
"He's a staple on that defensive line," Cornelius said of Blanding. "When he went out, they were able to move the ball a lot easier. It's no coincidence that Hartsville was able to score three touchdowns in a 7-minute span.
"Our effort has been pretty good," he said. "I keep telling these guys in life you face adversity all the time, but it's hard to take back-to-back-to-back losses and still come out there and try to perform. That's a testament to our kids. They could have easily folded up against Hartsville after we lost the tough game against Lugoff-Elgin. But they had a good week of practice and I think we've made progress. I think some other Lakewood teams, you'd have seen them fold by now."
Lakewood can significantly boost its chances to earn a slot in the 4A playoffs with a win over the 1-6 Falcons, also winless in region play. And while Cornelius knows his team has come a long way since the Gators went 1-19 during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the next step is finishing.
"There's a good buzz," Cornelius said of his team's positive attitude. "Obviously we wish weren't sitting here with only two wins; but to be honest, I think instead of being 2-6, we could be 6-2. We've had three or four games where we've lost by a touchdown or less, so that's huge for us to go in and finish every game having a chance to win.