WEST CHESTER TWP. — Tom Bolden was giving the Lakota West High School football team the usual directive during practice Tuesday. It was nothing short of discipline or focus.
The Firebird brand still resonated.
But the fifth-year Lakota West head coach was missing something that had always been there with him for a decade and a half.
“This one is interesting this year because this is the first time in close to 15 years I haven’t coached a family member — whether it be one of my own children or a nephew,” Bolden said referring to his days stemming back to Colerain. “So this one is different, but it’s exciting how different it is.”
While discipline and focus aren’t changing on the gridiron for the Firebirds in 2023, the quarterback position is.
Mitch Bolden, Tom’s son who is set to begin his freshman year at Army West Point, won’t be the Lakota West signal caller like he had been for the last four seasons.
The Firebirds (13-1) are coming off a regional runner-up finish for a third straight season — on the offensive heels of Mitch Bolden — following their 38-20 loss to Moeller in the Division I regional final.
Now, the competition to fill his shoes runs deep.
“I told the poor quarterbacks whoever wins the job, ‘I feel sorry for you because you’re going to get treated like you’re Mitch Bolden for a while,’” the coach joked. “Some of them had that look like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Bolden said senior Nolan Parker, juniors Sam Wiles and Ashton Sheafe and freshman Jackson Smith are vying for starting QB.
And Bolden likes it.
“I still get that vibe — that feeling,” he said. “This one is different. Not that it’s better or any worse, it’s just different, which makes it special.
“We’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Bolden added. “I think we will be good at the beginning of the year. I think we’ll be really, really good by the end of the year, and a lot of that comes into play with breaking in a new quarterback.
“We’ve got enough around whoever wins the job defensively. We’ve got a few kids, some dudes that will help carry things early defensively. I like the direction we’re going, but I need some people to step up.”
Senior Brennan Remy is an offensive threat who will ease the quarterback transition.
The wide receiver had 46 catches for 665 yards and a Greater Miami Conference-best 10 touchdowns as a junior.
“We’ve got enough around them with Brennan Remy,” Bolden said. “He’s a special player, and a phenomenal baseball player, too. He’s just that guy. He’s it. He’s that factor.”
Bolden described Remy, who received his first Division I college offer from Southeast Missouri, as a Fred Biletnikoff type of player.
“I had to explain to him and the rest of the kids who the heck Fred Biletnikoff was,” Bolden laughed. “I told him to Google it and all that stuff. Once he came back, he said, ‘Yeah, Coach. That’s pretty cool.’ He kind of has that vibe.”
BOOM, BOOM, POWELL
Taebron Bennie-Powell was in his comfort zone Tuesday, practicing defensive schemes at safety.
The recent Notre Dame commit was all smiles in doing so.
“We’re real hungry. We want a state title. Every year, that’s the plan. That’s the goal,” he said.
Bennie-Powell last season was put in position to “do what was best for the team” by playing more of a linebacker role. He’s now looking forward to carrying out his senior leadership duties in the defensive backfield — where he hopes to shine even more.
“We’ve just been grinding and getting bigger in the weight room, and coming onto the field instilling all of that,” said Bennie-Powell, who noted how much he had learned from 2023 Firebird grads and all-state defensive backs Malik Hartford and Ben Minich.
Bennie-Powell next year will be joining Minich, who is entering his freshman season at Notre Dame.
“I’m at my natural position. I feel more comfortable,” Bennie-Powell said. “I can see the field, be smarter, and be more like Ben and Malik. I looked up to them. I can always text them and ask for some help.”
“Here’s a kid, not that he wasn’t good enough to play safety, he just had two older, really good dudes in front of him,” added Bolden of Bennie-Powell. “We brought him down to the box (last season), which has ultimately helped him in terms of being closer to the ball and being more physical.”
Bennie-Powell caught some attention — specifically from Notre Dame — when Lakota West participated in a recent 7 on 7 against Ironton and Winton Woods.
“He was the best dude out there,” Bolden said. “He looked apart — floating around like that.”
Bennie-Powell immediately got a call from the Fighting Irish asking him to come to South Bend for a visit and participate in camp.
He was offered within the hour of arriving.
“He’s a great kid and a heck of football player,” Bolden described Bennie-Powell. “Always smiling. Soft spoken, but always smiling and always doing what you ask of him.”
Bennie-Powell will also play a key role at wide receiver, Bolden noted.
Luka Gilbert can be spotted easily amongst the sea of Firebirds. The 6-foot-7 junior has all the tight end attributes to cause opposing defenses some trouble, Bolden said.
“He’s a special dude,” Bolden said of Gilbert, who has interest from Ohio State and Michigan. “He’s got the ability to block, and he’s got the ability to catch.”
Gilbert said last year’s postseason defeat to Moeller stung, and that’s been fuel for him and his Firebird teammates heading into 2023.
“We’re getting the energy up right now,” Gilbert said. “It’s great to be back out here. I was missing it after the tough loss last year. But it’s awesome to be back.
“It sat with me the whole offseason. That one loss kind of sat with me, but you use it as motivation and work hard in the weight room. I think that’s how the rest of us feel.”
Senior Jiovionni Wilson will add depth to the receiving corps, and “he’s tough as nails,” Bolden said. Senior Eudes Gonzalez Jr. returns in the offensive backfield.
Senior linebacker Gabriel Flores brings a lot of grit and grind to the defensive side of the ball.
“Right now, there’s just a lot of energy — a great start to the season,” Flores said. “I’m just getting ready for Week 1 and getting 1% better every single day. We’re just a bunch of guys figuring it out. We lost a lot, but we’re returning a lot.
“We’re really excited to see what we can do this season. We’re obviously going to be a team that competes again, but it’s about putting everything together and getting ready before we play.”
Senior linebacker Jacob Asbeck returns after wrapping up 74 total tackles last season.
“I have to warn them, don’t let that red hair and freckles fool you now,” Bolden said of Asbeck, who led the GMC with 10 sacks. “That boy is a killer. I refer to him as the Ginger Assassin, affectionately. He plays with a motor that is unreal, unmatched. He’s a brilliant football player. He kind of sets the tone with the linebackers.”
Bolden said, defensively, to keep an eye on senior Drew Minich, senior Bukari Miles, junior Grant Beerman, senior Elijah Davis, senior Jonas Griffith, sophomore Cam Thomas and junior Micah Markley.
“It’s the same core values, the same Firebird brand football,” Flores said. “Run fast, hit hard. All gas, no brakes.”
The defending three-peat GMC champion Firebirds open up the 2023 campaign at St. Xavier on Aug. 18.
Bolden said it doesn’t get any better than that.
“What about that as a season opener?” he said. “That’s a tough one. You’ve gotta go to St. Xavier — that atmosphere is awesome — with a new quarterback. That’s going to be interesting. We’ll see. We’re preparing ourselves.
“I’ve said it over and over again. It’s what’s best about high school football when you can have games like that. You can have them early, or whenever. But especially having it right off the bat, you’ll know what you’ve got. You’ll know what you’re good at, and you’ll know what you’ll have to fix.”
Lakota West has upcoming scrimmages against Elder and Winton Woods, “So I’ll know what we’ve got early. I think that will help us,” Bolden added.
Bolden said he’s adamant on the GMC being the most competitive league in the state of Ohio. He doesn’t see that changing.
“We’ve just got to kick the door in,” Bolden said. “The whole thing that people don’t understand sometimes is that you can have a great team that is good enough to win it all, but there just might be that one team out there that’s a little bit better. That’s how it happens. We’ve been really, really good. Now we just need to take that next step.”
“State title. That’s all there is to it,” Gilbert chimed in. “Yeah, GMC titles, we want those obviously. But what we want is a state title, and we’re going to get there.”