By: Nate Schneider
Championship or bust: West Bloomfield enters season with lofty goals
A quick look at the West Bloomfield roster and you can figure out quickly why several leaders on the team are using the same phrase: state championship or bust.
The Lakers boast an offense led by three Division I commits at skill positions - quarterback Bryce Veasley plus wideouts Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott - which is only the beginning of an ultra-talented roster that has the makings of being one of the better Division 1 squads in 2017.
After back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2014 and 2015, last year saw West Bloomfield dip to a 6-5 record and a 41-6 loss to Southfield in a district title game.
But with a senior-laden roster led by the aforementioned trio of offensive weapons plus a slew of other talented football players scattered all over the field, the Lakers could be poised to make a state championship run.
“We didn’t like the way last year ended,” West Bloomfield eighth-year head coach Ron Bellamy said. “We were a young ball club and now we’re a veteran team with a lot of seniors. We’re just excited to strap them up and play football again.”
Bellamy, who was a standout wide receiver at the University of Michigan and spent five years in the NFL, has gradually turned around the fortunes of the Lakers as he enters his eighth season at the helm.
West Bloomfield had previously only qualified for the postseason twice in school history prior to Bellamy taking over and it took a while to find traction, winning a total of seven games over the first three seasons.
Yet in 2017, the Lakers are viewed as a bona fide state title contender and the days of being an also-ran program are a distant memory.
“We started this program from the bottom up,” Bellamy said. “We built it the right way and right now we’re just trying to get better and better. The kids believe. They believe every season they have an opportunity. It’s no longer about having a winning season or making the playoffs. The expectation now is to win championships. That’s the culture we’ve built here and it’s what we want to sustain.”
One by one when asked their goals for the season, Veasley along with both playmaking wide receivers answered in various terms that the season would be a disappointment if it does not end with them hoisting a state championship trophy.
Lofty expectations for sure, but that is being created at West Bloomfield with future Division I college football players at so many positions.
“This year we’re going all the way,” Mustapha said without hesitation. “We’re getting a ring.”
Mustapha and Abbott both verbally committed to the University of Wisconsin this summer, giving Veasley a pair of future Big Ten Conference wide receivers at his disposal.
It was only a couple years ago when the wide receiver duo met at 7-on-7 scrimmages over the summer. The duo quickly became close friends and while their commitments to Wisconsin may not necessarily have been a package deal, it definitely helped with the decision process.
“The Wisconsin coaching staff really sold me,” Mustapha said. “Wisconsin is a top-of-the-line school. My main goal is to go to the NFL, but also to get my degree. Having a meaningful degree from Wisconsin is very important.”
Mustapha, a 6-foot-1 and 185-pounder, is Veasley’s go-to threat over the middle of the field and capable of turning a minimal gain into a home run in the blink of an eye. He caught 47 passes for 879 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior.
The 6-2 and 180-pound Abbott transfers in from Northville High School, where he played the previous two seasons. He has sub-4.5 speed, which helped him catch 46 passes for 906 yards and six TDs last year.
His stock rose after flashing the speed at camps hosted by Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin. He received offers from all three schools, settling on Wisconsin in June following Mustapha’s verbal commitment.
The speed Abbott possesses will loosen defenses and prevent them from focusing in on Mustapha or the run game.
“I stretch teams vertically so Taj can get open underneath,” Abbott explained. “Teams won’t know how to guard us, to be honest. And that will open up the run game also. So it’s going to be good.”
Bellamy spoke about the differences in the games of the two Wisconsin commits.
“A.J. is a vertical guy who can stretch the field but he can also run every route,” Bellamy said. “Taj is almost like a running back playing wide receiver. He’s a thicker kid who runs well and has the ability to catch everything. He has pretty good hands and the ability to break tackles and make you miss. In our offense and in the scheme of things, that’s very significant for us.”
Another top senior on the Lakers roster is 6-6 and 300-pound tackle Javon Foster, a Central Michigan commit.
Bellamy has solid advice for all future Division I student-athletes under his tutelage, having plenty of experience in that field himself.
“You get a chance to get a free education because you can throw the football, catch the football, tackle people or block people,” Bellamy added. “Make the most of that opportunity. Football is a game and it opens doors for you that it may not for other people. Take full advantage of it. I’m a big believer in football teaching you a lot of life lessons. It teaches you teamwork, leadership, determination, time management, and to be driven. Make the most of that.”
West Bloomfield has never advanced past the district final round of the MHSAA postseason.