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St. Laurence football coach Harold Blackmon, during their first practice at the school.| Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
St. Laurence came within one victory of qualifying for the playoffs in 2013.
A win in Week 9 against Fenwick would have qualified the Vikings for their first postseason since 2009. It didn’t happen. The Vikings lost 28-14 to the Friars and finished with a 4-5 record.
Entering his third season at St. Laurence, coach Harold Blackmon is confident the Vikings will return to the postseason in ’14.
There’s a reason, beyond blind hope, for his optimism. He likes what he sees from his players, whom he said have exhibited tremendous effort and dedication during offseason workouts.
“I’m really pleased right now,” said Blackmon, a Northwestern graduate. “The kids have a great attitude and are giving great effort. We don’t have the depth that we would like, but we have the talent. They need to rise to the occasion.”
This is an important season for Blackmon and the Vikings program. After seasons of 1-8 and 4-5, it’s important St. Laurence continues to show progress. A 5-4 record and entry into the playoffs, at the very least, would provide the next step toward a resurgence. Another 4-5 season or worse largely would be looked upon as the program taking a step back.
Blackmon realizes the importance of producing a winning season.
“It’s important for us to maintain an onward projection,” he said. “It’s important for us to make positive steps as a program. We need to stay visible.”
It’s debatable whether the significance of staying visible is more important to any other school than it is to St. Laurence.
When it comes to football, the Vikings remain in the shadow of Mount Carmel, St. Rita, Marist and even Brother Rice. Those programs, with the exception of a year or two every 10 years, rank among the area’s top teams.
That’s why when the top junior high football prospects choose a private school, St. Laurence is for the most part considered a fall-back destination, an afterthought. The Vikings have struggled to land the biggest fish, or enough big fish required to sustain success.
However, if the Vikings can remain visible — translation: win games and qualify for the playoffs — perception will change and top prospects will be more likely to consider St. Laurence.
Blackmon said it’s been, at times, a frustrating experience getting kids to consider St. Laurence.
“Attracting kids from all areas has been difficult,” Blackmon said. “Some areas we work really, really hard to attract players. But for whatever reason, it’s been difficult cultivating players from those areas. We know we’re not going to get every player. But we feel we’re a viable option. At least come take a look at what we have to offer.”
While Blackmon’s task is difficult, it’s not impossible. Look no further than what Pete Lotus has done with St. Laurence’s baseball program. Lotus has transformed the Vikings into a perennial powerhouse, ranked among the best in the Southland. When it comes to top baseball prospects searching for a private school, St. Laurence is a viable option.
It’s a process that demands time and success.
Blackmon has 33 players on his varsity roster. He’s quick to point out, however, that a lack of numbers should not be confused with a lack of talent.
Seniors Mike Sterna, Andy Gamboa, Jake Kolniak, Matt Gurgone, Tyler Snee, Jake Karlicek and Tom Lyons, as well as juniors Alex Salach, Mark Polchan and Alex Martinez fill the bill.
Blackmon has high hopes for his sophomores (his first recruiting class), who beat Mount Carmel and won conference as freshmen. Kids such as Romello Washington, Fayezon Smart, Jimmy Burnette, Lonnie Chambers and Doug Kosch are expected to contribute on varsity this season.
If St. Laurence is going to qualify for the playoffs, Washington and Smart, blessed with immense skill, will need to play a part.
“At certain positions, I’d put our kids up against anybody,” Blackmon said. “We’re more athletic this year. We just have to continue to raise the talent level. The goal remains the same: to win a state championship.”
This season could prove to be a step in the right direction.