Bob Abbey was an assistant coach in track and football at Lake High School when
the school district was trying to pass an operating levy in the mid-2000s.
After several failed attempts to pass the levy, voters approved a 6.75-mill, five-year operating levy in August 2006. By that time, however, many Lake students had transferred to other local high schools in order to play sports or be involved in other extracurricular activities.
Dave Shaffer, Lake's director of athletics, said the Flyers "lost approximately 150 kids district-wide."
Included in that group were several standout athletes. Abbey, who became the Flyers' head football coach beginning with the 2007 season, said his team lost "probably five kids who were starters at our school."
"Those were good kids, hard workers, quality individuals and good football players at the varsity level," Abbey said. "And then they leave. That leaves a big hole, not just that year but a couple years down the road. You lose leaders on the practice field and in the locker room.
"There was sort of a vacuum there and a hole that had to be filled. The kids who stayed did a tremendous job trying to fill that. Kids had to move up to play varsity ball, who, quite honestly, should have been playing jayvee ball."
Lake's football team won five games in 2005 and then dipped to 1-9 in 2006 and 0-10 in 2007. The 2006 team had just 41 players in grades 9-12. That number jumped to 51 in 2008, Abbey's second year at the helm, as the Flyers improved to 3-7.
This fall, Lake had 48 players and finished 7-3 and nearly knocked off perennial Suburban Lakes League power Eastwood.
"This year's senior class were freshmen in 2006 (when the levy passed)," Abbey said. "They had a taste of what it was like in those tough times. They saw what had gone on, but as they grew older they were determined to put it behind them and put Lake in a different image.
"We took some hits in a lot of different ways for a couple years, not knowing if we were going to have sports, or what sports. As the kids matured through high school, they said they were going to leave a legacy of their own."
Most of Lake's varsity athletic programs are on solid ground again. Some programs are still looking for that breakthrough season, while others are already at championship level.
Soccer teams flying high
Three years ago, the boys’ soccer team had 12 players in grades 9-12 and the Flyers finished 2-12-2. The number of players jumped to 22 in 2007, and since that season the Flyers have gone 29-20-6.
Lake's 2008 team lost in the Division III regional finals to eventual state champion Ottawa Hills. This fall, second-year coach Chad Lillich's squad went 8-4-5 and will return eight starters next season, including junior Bryant Philo, the SLL player of the year.
Lillich said that to his knowledge, the levy failures did not have an impact on the boys soccer program. Lillich also coaches an ESSL travel team as well as a premier-level soccer team in the Toledo Football Academy.
"We've actually had kids move into the district to play soccer because I've coached them at one time or another," Lillich said. "We've had three kids transfer in since I took over."
Lake's inaugural girls’ soccer team went 2-11-4 in 2004, but the Flyers now have one of the strongest Division II programs in the area.
Coach Steve Hoffman's team ended the 2009 season with a 1-0 shootout loss to St. Marys Memorial in the regional finals. The Flyers finished 19-2-1 (7-0-1 SLL) and won their second straight league title behind SLL Player of the Year Shelby Antonacci, a freshman.
Last season, Lake went 12-4-4 (6-0-2 SLL) and won the inaugural SLL title. The Flyers also reached the regional semifinals before losing 1-0 to unbeaten Liberty-Benton.
Baseball remains strong
Greg Wilker, who is in his 26th season as Lake's baseball coach, said he lost "five or six" players to other schools when the levies continued to fail. His program's numbers, however, have remained steady throughout this decade.
The Flyers had 32 players on their junior varsity and varsity rosters in 2004, followed by 27 in 2005, 25 in 2006, 28 in 2007 and 26 the past two seasons. Lake has remained competitive on the diamond, going 23-7 in 2004 and 19-7, 19-10, 16-12, 15-12 and 19-11 over the past five seasons.
"So many of the kids grew up playing baseball together, they didn't want to leave their friends," Wilker said. "They have, hopefully, had a good experience playing here. We lost some key players over the years; luckily, not big numbers but some very good players over the years who were worried about Lake not having sports."
Wilker said he considered giving up coaching as the levies failed time after time.
"As a coach, it was very tough," he said. "I considered getting out. You would get frustrated with it. You work with a kid for two or three years and it's easy to get attached to them. To see them leave as juniors and seniors, it was difficult.
"I told the parents to do what they thought was best for their child. It was very tough on some of those families and I felt bad for them. Those levy years were very difficult for everyone — coaches, parents and players. I'm hoping we don't have to go through those again."