'A special place for us'

Hours before they would bulldoze their latest opponent, Lakeside football players sat in silence, eyes focused on a flat-screen television the size of a basketball backboard.

Inside Warren Baptist Church, they absorbed a testimonial from Heisman Trophy-winning Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. As the images faded to black, student pastor Grant Janik practically leaped in front of them, gripping a palm-sized Bible.

"What's up, guys?" Janik said, the first words of what would be a 10-minute devotional structured around the David vs. Goliath story.

The Panthers have gathered here before games this season to channel their focus. A ritual of eating together and hearing a devotional has become as much a part of their team as a stingy defense and balanced offense.

These things have collided to put the Panthers on the brink of the school's best season in history. A win over Josey tonight would place Lakeside, which has played football since 1988 without winning a region title, on top of the final Region 3-AAAA standings and give it the opportunity to play host to as many as two home playoff games.

Third-year coach Jody Grooms said his initial plan was to take his teams to different churches in the area, but several players' families belong to Warren and it turned out to be an ideal place to gather, eat and prepare for their game. While the practice of worshiping prior to an athletic event may seem like the norm for area private schools -- Aquinas, for example, attends Mass as a team before every game -- Grooms said his players have embraced the ritual.

"Any time you can get a group of kids together in that kind of environment ... there's a certain kind of bonding agent created," Grooms said. "That's difficult to get anywhere else."

The Panthers ate pregame meals at Sunrise Grill last year as a disjointed bunch. Senior Chris Tynan said: "We goofed around. We didn't have our mind right."

There is nothing unorganized about this year, including the seating arrangements. The Panthers eat in tables that form a giant U. The only time they didn't do this was Oct. 2, before they lost their only game -- by one point to Hephzibah in overtime. They vowed to never change the seating arrangement again.

"Everybody's there, everybody's focused, everybody's listening and that has done a lot for our camaraderie," Grooms said. "I've been around teams before at different schools that just didn't have the 'it' that this team has."

Janik, the student pastor, alternates speaking to the team with another Warren pastor, Lane Lowry. They often begin their messages with video of a Christian testimonial from a popular athlete or musician.

"That gives them a different level of credibility than what I do," said Janik. "We do this to be an open door. ... If you like what you hear, check it out. That would be drive No. 2. (Drive) No. 1 is to spread a message of hope and true life in Christ."

By this point of their day, the typical player has endured a half dozen classes and plenty of urges to let their mind drift toward what might play out on the field. Tynan, though, said players don't have difficulty paying attention.

"It blows the school aspect away," Tynan said. "It's motivational, pretty much. The guy gets up there and relates things to the Bible, but there's always a story behind it."

Grooms said the ritual is also an escape. After a season-opening 17-0 pounding of Evans, school spirit soared, he said. His team needed a place away from the clamor.

"This year, our Fridays have been so wound up -- I guess that's what happens with success," Grooms said. "It subdues them, puts them in touch with who they are, who we are. A lot of people have spilled their heart -- coaches and players. It's been a special place for us this year."

Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or matt.middleton@augustachronicle.com.

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