After losing around 10 senior contributors from last year’s 5-5 team, you might think Hillsboro football coach Max Heinrichs would be apprehensive about the Trojans’ prospects this fall.
But the shelf hardly is depleted. In his third year at the helm, Heinrichs (12-9) and his team of assistants welcome back 16 returning letter-winners, including 11 starters.
Combine those numbers with a 7-1 record by the junior varsity a year ago, and the potential is there for substantive success.
“I really like this team,” Heinrichs said. “There’s nobody we can’t line up with and play—as long as we don’t have injuries.
“Some of my question marks are depth on the offensive line, depth at linebacker, and who’s actually going to be my running back. We’ve got three or four that I think are pretty good. We haven’t thrown them into the fire yet, though.”
Contributors on offense
Returning to lead the Trojans’ multiple-set offense at quarterback will be senior Luke Moore (5-feet, 8 inches, 184 pounds), who completed 102 of 182 passes for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. He also ran for 178 yards and received honorable mention all-league.
“Luke is a leader,” Heinrichs said. “I think he’ll feel more freedom to lead this year. He has worked hard to make himself a better quarterback. Luke will bring some poise, he knows the offense.”
Heinrichs has quality depth at the quarterback spot with junior Lucas Sinclair (5-10, 186) and sophomore Jesse Brown (5-11, 141) ready to step in.
“We lost Lucas early last year with a broken foot,” Heinrichs said. “But he’s throwing the ball well and has command of the offense. He’s very good about directing people and getting them to the right place. He’s kind of a little general out there.”
Brown may bring the best mix of physical skills to the position.
“Jesse is a fast kid, a great athlete,” Heinrichs said. “He needs to get a little more command of the whole thing, and not just what he’s doing. But we’ll need to have him on the field. We won’t let him sit around and watch a lot.”
Leading candidates to fill the void at lead running back left by the graduation of Chance Reece, a first-team all league performer last year, are juniors Mitchell Day (5-7, 129) and Tyler Proffitt (6-0, 151) and sophomore Scott Brazil (5-7, 159).
Senior Devin Dick (5-11, 191) and juniors Tyrell Thiessen (5-10, 264) and Brown likely will see time at the position as well.
“Mitchell Day is fast, no doubt,” Heinrichs said. “He’s small, but there’s some good to be said about being small when you have the big linemen we have. If (defenders) lose track of him, they can’t find the ball. He’s pretty shifty and has good speed.
“Scott Brazil is just a bull. Proffitt, if he had Day’s speed, would be an all-stater because he sees the field well and knows how it’s going to work.”
Heinrichs’ biggest concern about the running back corps is durability.
“They’re not big people,” he said.
To augment the passing game, the Trojans appear to have talented depth at tight end and wide receiver.
“I feel really good about our tight-end combination with Aaron Klassen (6-2, 181) and Josh Wiebe (6-2, 174),” he said of the senior and junior letter-winners. “Luke can see those guys. Then you add our wide receivers—they’re so good I don’t want to put them in order.”
By class, the list includes senior Derek Kelsey (5-10, 174), junior Shaq Thiessen (5-11, 149) and sophomores Evan Ollenburger (5-11, 133) and Christian Ratzlaff (6-0, 157).
“We’re talking some really, really athletic kids there,” Heinrichs said. “We like to throw the ball around so the kids think it’s fast-break basketball.”
Anchoring the offensive line that will make it all happen is senior Brandon Rooker (6-1, 233), a unanimous all-league selection on offense in 2010 and an honorable-mention pick on defense.
“He had an outstanding summer (in the weight room),” Heinrichs said. “He’s going to be really good. He probably won’t get off the field, and I’m hoping he can handle it.
“The one thing we’ve asked from Brandon since his sophomore year is that he manage his emotions. He has stepped up and has been a real leader. I just think he’s going to be outstanding on both sides of the ball.”
Also returning for the Trojans are juniors Nathan Unruh (6-1, 213) and Dylan Jirak (6-0, 207).
“Before his knee injury (in 2010), we believe Jirak was our best lineman,” Heinrichs said.
Also in the picture are seniors Aaron Slater (6-1, 235) and David Nelson (6-1, 230) and juniors Tanner Jones (5-9, 165) and Carter Pankratz (5-10, 282).
“Add these guys to the mix and you can see why we believe the line play could be one of our strengths,” Heinrichs said.
Dennis Boldt, who is coaching offensive line for the first time this season following the coaching retirement of Len Coryea after 25 years at HHS, agrees with Heinrichs’ assessment.
“Our offensive line will be our strength, but once we get away from the starters, we have no depth,” he said. “But that starting line will be really good. They’re going to make the running backs go, and they’re going to give Luke more time (to throw).”
Boldt, who also is the team’s defensive coordinator, said the top candidates for offensive line will see time on defense side, too. Rooker and Unruh are projected to start at the tackles with Klassen and Wiebe on the ends.
The Trojans will be somewhat inexperienced at linebacker following the graduation of first-team all-leaguers Ben Gardner, a unanimous choice, and Caleb Hilliard.
Currently, the leading candidates to step in are Dick, Tyrell Thiessen and Moore, who has been cleared to play both ways this season.
“Linebackers are a group that really has to communicate with everybody, and they’ve got to have game time,” Boldt said. “We’ve got more depth then when we started the year, but overall we’re inexperienced.”
Kelsey, Proffitt and Ollenburger will rotate at the cornerback positions while Shaq Thiessen and Ratzlaff are the leading candidates at safety.
“I would say a concern at this point would be getting the kids ready for game speed,” Boldt said.
“We are not a team of great numbers and depth, so we find it difficult to put a group of experienced offensive players on the field to run plays in practice against our first-team defense.”
That said, Boldt likes the quality of his athletes.
“We’re going to find out what teams want to do, and I think we can take it away and make them do things that are uncomfortable,” he said.
The Central Kansas League will be competing in two divisions again this year. Last year, Hillsboro finished third in the five-team North Division at 2-2.
Heinrichs said this year’s team has a chance to do better, “but it’s all about breaks and how you handle adversity.”
The Trojans’ opening opponent, Halstead, won the North last year with a 4-0 mark (6-3 overall). Heinrichs expects the Dragons to be competitive again despite the loss of a large senior class.
But the team to beat this fall may be Sterling (6-4), who was 3-1 in the North in 2010 and might have upset state power Smith Center in the first round of the state playoffs had it not been for the Black Bears’ six turnovers.
“That has been the team that has caused me the most consternation these two years,” Heinrichs said about Sterling. “We couldn’t stop them. They get their three or four yards (per play), and you bust them and you bust them, then all of a sudden they pop that 12-yard pass. You never get the ball. They do that well.”
Rounding out the division are Smoky Valley (1-3, 2-7) and Lyons (0-4, 1-8). Heinrichs expects the Vikings to be improved this year, but the Lions, with another new head coach, may struggle.
In district play, Hillsboro will face the same three schools as last season: Southeast of Saline, Remington and Marion. Heinrichs expects all three schools to give the Trojans a battle.
“Southeast will be improved—that’s the only team that beat our JV last year,” he said. “Remington has (standout quarterback Cole) Cherryholmes, and that makes them a threat. And Marion is always going to be tough.”
As for playing their intra-county rivals in the regular-season finale once again, Heinrichs said, “They’re going to be physical, they’re going to play hard. They can probably beat most teams in the state when they play us. They get up for that game.”
The Trojans will travel to Halstead for its opener on Friday. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.