DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – As a ninth grader of highschool, John Laakso anticipated to present up for Oakmont soccer apply with the freshman workforce. Until a name got here from head coach Art Hurd.
“[Hurd]told me he wanted me to come in with varsity,” Laakso stated. “Two of my classmates, Bill LeBlanc and John Hess, also got calls, but I understood that. So big and so fast, but I was shocked when they called me in to try the quarterback.”
Apparently the Oakmont knives knew what they had been doing. When it got here time for his senior 12 months in 1977, Laakso was on the helm – together with working again Hess and tight finish LeBlanc – to lead the Spartans to an unbeaten season and victory within the Division 3 Super Bowl towards Palmer.
“There was a bit of magic this season and everyone fit into their place,” stated Laakso. “Johnny Hess, nobody was faster than (Ayers) Joe Morris in the whole league, and they went neck and neck in the 100-yard dash on the course. My job was to get the ball up to (6ft 5 end) Billy LeBlanc or pass it to Hess.
Growing up in Ashburnham, he recalled playing sports with future teammates like Hess, LeBlanc and Pete Sawyer when they were in fourth grade at JR Briggs School.
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Upon reaching Oakmont, he caught the eye of Hurd, his coach for the first two seasons.
“Art Hurd was the man you looked up to. We knew him from junior high as a sports coach and he laid the groundwork there,” stated Laakso.
Tragically, Hurd died of a heart attack in August 1976, just weeks before the first training session of Laakso’s youth football season.
“It was traumatic. He had such presence and I feel in our junior 12 months we weren’t that good as a result of we sort of struggled,” said Laakso. “It was bizarre taking part in soccer at Oakmont and he wasn’t there. It simply wasn’t the identical.”
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Assistant coach Bill Wyman stepped in as interim coach to see the workforce by means of the season. In 1977, the Spartans welcomed their third coach in as a few years when former Gardner High and Boston University soccer star Dave LaRoche was employed.
“Dave was an ideal match. Coach Wyman was in a position to step down as an assistant and Dave was stuffed with younger vitality,” said Laakso. “He was a spark for the whole unit. All of a sudden we were winning games and it was like ‘Wow!’”
Laakso led a strong offense at quarterback that included wing back Kurt Harju, fullback Tim Douglas and tailback Hess, with LeBlanc and Bill Lough on the ends.
They appeared behind the experienced offensive line of center Charlie Pisaruk, guards Jamie Scotland and Dennis Maylin, and tackles Sawyer and John Matalainen.
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LaRoche’s coaching era began with a 12-0 win over Fall Mountain in Langdon, New Hampshire, and continued with shutouts in three of their first four games.
Oakmont was finally challenged in week 7. Just before halftime, 6-3 behind Nashoba, LaRoche and Wyman weighed their options — kneel and run out the clock or take a shot.
“They requested me and I stated, ‘Let’s take a shot and see what occurs,'” Laakso said.
What happened was a 52-yard bomb from Laakso to LeBlanc in the end zone to give the Spartans a 9-6 lead into the locker room.
“Wyman would name the offense (LaRoche the protection) and he saved me as level-headed as I may keep,” he said. “In the emotional moments he was excellent.”
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In the third quarter, after big runs from Hess and Douglas, Laakso took over from one for the eventual winning points in a 16-12 win over the then Chieftains.
This led to another major showdown the following week with the undefeated Ayer and her heralded offense led by future New York Giants Super Bowl winner Joe Morris.
“We had been down 14-6 at halftime and Coach LaRoche made a memorable speech,” said Laakso. “We changed the defense and made Hess run with Morris wherever he went. With a little swarming and gang tackling, we take them out.”
Second-half touchdown runs by Hess and Douglas resulted in a 22-14 Oakmont win.
“After we received that recreation, we felt no person may beat us,” said Laakso. “It gave us a sure stage of confidence as a result of it appeared like all the things we had been doing was working.”
Laakso delivers in the biggest game on the schedule
Oakmont finished the regular season with shutout wins over Narragansett and Lunenburg before defeating Central Mass. represented Palmer at Springfield College in the Division 3 Central-West Super Bowl.
“The Super Bowl recreation was nearly a blur,” Laakso stated. “We were so prepared for this game; It was like there was no chance we wouldn’t win.”
He recalled that the team had toured Springfield College the day before and then spent the night at the Treadway Inn in Chicopee. Wyman also arranged for the team to tour the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
“The whole experience was just a great event for us,” he said. “We almost felt like a college team traveling to our game.”
Laakso threw two TD passes in championship contention – both for LeBlanc – while Hess rushed for another in the Spartans’ 22-0 win.
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Oakmont would total 274 yards on offense while defense held Palmer to 75 yards on the rush and minus 1 yard on the pass.
Oakmont scored a school-record 284 points in 1977 and allowed a school-record low of 49 points in 11 games. The six shutouts were a credit to LaRoche’s defensive plans, who began his coaching career leading the Spartans to 18 straight wins. Oakmont returned to the Super Bowl in 1978 and won another title with an 18-6 win over Southbridge.
“It was great to be a part of (LaRoche’s) first season and then to see what an incredible career he was going to have at Oakmont,” Laakso said.
Pursue football, higher education at Plymouth State
Laakso attended Plymouth State College where he played football for a couple of years before a knee injury thwarted his plans. He graduated with a degree in physical education, but when Massachusetts didn’t have many teaching opportunities, he went to Florida.
“I got there on spring break and it was great, and at the time I had a cousin who lived in Delray Beach and worked in the school system,” Laakso said.
He ended up in Palm Beach County schools as an elementary school teacher of physical education for 28 years while also coaching football and soccer.
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Life after teaching, coaching
Now retired, he lives in Delray Beach with his partner of 15 years, Emily Vanderpool, and works three days a week at the Bocaire Country Club golf course.
His son, John, from his previous marriage, received a master’s degree in biology from the University of Central Florida and teaches at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale.
Aside from golfing, Laakso enjoys walking on the beaches and cycling.
“I had planned to stay here for three years, got a job as a teacher and never left. It became a 40-year activity,” he stated. “I joke among my friends, ‘I came home from spring break and just never left.'”
(Have a suggestion for a future Where Are They Now section? Please contact Mike Richard at [email protected] or writing to Mike Richard, 92 Boardley Rd. Sandwich, MA 02563)