There’s a number of reasons why East Lake found itself on a deep playoff run last season.
The whole team played better after a 6-5 season in 2015, just barely grabbing a spot in the tiebreaker. Combined that with an early first round exit courtesy of Plant City, and you’d say it was a down year for the Eagles.
Last season, well, that was a much, much different story. The offense played better, the defense played better, the whole team looked better. Tyler Rupe found his way to the starting QB role and led the offense to 28.9 PPG. The defense, led by a numerous amount of individuals, pitched three shutouts, two against district opponents, and was one of the biggest parts of their success.
Karsen Lilley found his way in the center of it all. The junior played at middle linebacker for his first full season with East Lake in 2016, and played a big role in leading his defense to a successful year. It wasn’t just about the offense or defense’s success, as the whole team viewed their successes as a collective unit.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to anyone than I have with that team. We came out with the mentality that every player wanted to win. It was honestly the most fun I’ve ever had playing football,” Lilley said. “It was amazing just to see how casual success was for us, it made it feel like success was the status quo, we loved having that feeling.”
That unity catapulted the Eagles to a Class 7A-Region 3 Final appearance, where they tangled with a tough Venice squad and came up short, losing 43-14. In that affair, Lilley cited a lack of unity and preparedness for that battle. “We went in there and some players weren’t ready, we just weren’t as crisp. I think we really just went in there expecting to win, we were just flat in a lot of ways.”
Lilley recorded seven solid tackles in the loss. The linebacker took the ballcarrier down 62 times in 2016 (41 by himself), and constantly showed good awareness about where the ball was. He was the third leading tackler for East Lake. His skill-set showed throughout the year, playing as a good leader of the defense that only allowed 15.3 PPG. They were dominant in places, the shutouts against rival Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, and Countryside showed that.
“It was just so much fun to be on that defense, it was almost laughable at times. The coaching staff was so superb on scouting, it was just a dream come true to shutout teams in front of classmates, community members, just to be able to show them the skill for all of the hard work that we’ve put in,” Lilley said.
Lilley thinks of himself as a student of the game, as an analytical guy in reading the offense opposite him. Even so, he can deliver some big hits in places. He’ll be the voice of the defense next season, especially with Cedric Frierson (East Lake’s leading tackler) on to Southeastern University to begin his college career. He’s already started his leadership by starting workouts and helping out underclassmen.
That defense will especially need to be at its best when East Lake hosts Hillsborough during the 2017 season – the Terriers boast a number of returning offensive starters that need to be accounted for. Lilley’s voice will need to be heard and respected to help bring the Eagles together in tough matchups.
“It’s just a lot of preparation for us coming into the summer months. I feel that we’ll be ready. Summer is all about getting guys acclimated to plays. A lot of guys are running track in this upcoming season, and you can never go wrong with that. Our coaches even implemented track conditioning in our workouts, getting up ready for the season, one step at a time.”
Lilley’s goals are more than just the typical, ‘make state’ goal that everyone seems to have, but he really wants to make an impact on the lives of the underclassmen to make them as good as they can possibly be.
“Yeah, trust me, I’d love to get farther than that third round, I want to make it farther than some of those upperclassmen did. Honestly, I just really want to be the team’s ‘big brother,’ I want the underclassmen to look up to me like I looked up to some of my former upperclassmen. I want to lead by example by showing them also my actions in the community, I really just want to be an idol for my teammates in 2017,” Lilley said.
He’ll be one for the Eagles to lean on in 2017 with solid play on the football field. But when it’s all said and done, Lilley wants to be remembered for the kind of teammate he was.
Lilley’s former teammates left a lasting impact on him, and now it’s Lilley’s turn to do the same for the future of East Lake football.