Hopatcong players sometimes have to stifle a giggle when they are asked about Johann Lara and what he can do on a football field. One of the Chiefs' most talented playmakers, Lara steps up at the most critical times.
Lineman Chris Houterman provided an example of how the junior tailback and his remarkable speed gave confidence to the rest of the Chiefs when he scored a winning touchdown against Boonton.
“I kind of had to lead block on the play but the kid I was supposed to block wasn’t really by Johann and (Johann) kind of ran past him,’’ Houterman said. “Johann being way faster than me is ahead of me and I’m supposed to be lead blocking. And he’s just juking people out.”
Lara is not Hopatcong’s only offensive weapon but the 5-foot-11, 165-pound back is one of its most entertaining. Hopatcong football is off to a 2-2 start and looks to build on their mark against Whippany Park on Friday.
After being a little banged up in the early season, the Chiefs and Lara expect to have a better second half, which would definitely help Hopatcong in its goal of returning to the state playoffs this year.
“He’s scary fast; one second he’s there then he’s gone,’’ senior defensive back Chris Seely said. “It’s his speed and his vision on the field. He knows how to set up a block and make people miss. He’s just so fast. You get there and he’s already down field.’’
Lara works on his game all-year round. He credits his training in track and field with helping to increase his speed and quickness on the gridiron. Lara advanced to the state group meets with his times on the 100- and 200-meters. He recently picked up running the 400, as well.
“It’s just something that I work on for sprinting and it helps me (in football) as well,’’ Lary said. “Field vision is important, too. You have to anticipate everything and you don’t always make the right choice but if you make a good read, you can make a good play.’’
Lara is capable of making game-changing plays and perhaps even a season-changing play. Arguably he did just that in the win over Boonton. He turned a critical fourth-and-two into a 46-yard scoring play midway through the third quarter that gave the Chiefs the 22-20 lead and the victory.
“The blocking was really good,’’ Lara said. “I just did what I had to do to get the first down because you have to know where the sticks are and you have to fight for every yard. In a game situation you need every yard you can get.’’
Lara took the handoff and ran toward the right sideline. He found enough yardage for the first down, dodged a defender or two and then found open space once he made a move to his left to break free.
“I noticed earlier in the game that when I went to the right everyone started flowing to the right,’’ Lara said. “Once I had that cutback, I just took it.”
The Chiefs have plenty of weapons including the arm and size of junior quarterback Ryan Clarke and the differing but complementary skill sets of backs Dan Meusel, Jihad Clarke and Gehring. As a defensive unit, Hopatcong does not have great size but it makes up for it with speed, aggressiveness, and the ability to hit hard and hit often.
“We like to emphasize that we might not be the biggest team, but we are definitely faster and we will hit you all game,’’ linebacker A.J. Bongiovanni said. “We will go after you, no matter what size you are. It shows in a lot of our games that we are still tough even though we are a bit undersized.”
Hopatcong is also a resilient team. Nearly all of them played youth football for the Hopatcong Warriors so they are comfortable playing together. They have a good mix of seniors and juniors that experienced success last season. Many like Houterman, Bongiovanni, Seely, Mark Duncan, Wyatt Gehring, Tommy Rieg and Stephen Rogers are two-way players that are extremely well conditioned in order to keep up with their game responsibilities from the opening coin toss to the final whistle.
The Chiefs also know how to learn from their losses without dwelling on them emotionally. An opening day 47-16 thumping by Mountain Lakes was followed by a rousing and hard fought 12-6 triumph over Pequannock on the road.
“After a loss, we come back strong,’’ Seely said. “We work extra hard at practice, all week. We watch more film. We’re hard on ourselves to get better. The coaches keep us in line. We find our mistakes, we fix them and then next week we don’t make the same mistakes.”
The 42-7 loss to North Warren was an eye-opening disappointment, but it only made the Chiefs more determined when they took on Boonton the following week.
“(Losing to) North Warren wasn’t really a downside,’’ linebacker Gehring said. “I think it was a learning experience. We did what we had to do. It was only the big plays they made that hurt us. … We knew what mistakes we made. We knew what we had to work on from there.”
And if future opponents tend to look past them, the Chiefs don’t mind that as long as they make a different impression on them by the time the game ends.
“On the outside there are always low expectations for us,’’ Houterman said. “On the inside–with this group of people it is like–‘okay is everybody ready to go to states.’ We are shooting for the top every single time.”