Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 02 September 2008 14:57
In a year when coach Len Coryea has the biggest squad in his 20-plus year association with the Hillsboro High School football program, lack of size is a chief concern as the 2008 season begins.
The apparent contradiction disappears when you realize that “biggest” refers to number of players—48 in all—and “lack of size” applies to their physical stature, particularly those doing battle in the offensive and defensive lines.
“Overall, physical size may be a problem during some games as we have no lineman starting over 200 pounds,” said Coryea, who begins his fifth year as head coach with a 21-21 record overall, but is 15-9 over the past two seasons with consecutive bi-district championships.
“The biggest key for us is keeping healthy,” Coryea added. “I believe we will have some good starters, but we have very little depth at quarterback and on the line.”
Potential on offense
On offense, the Trojans appear to be strong at the skill positions. Heading the list is Daniel Jost, an all-league and all-state selection at wide receiver. The 6-foot-2, 173-pound senior caught 45 passes for 780 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007.
“Daniel simply is one of the best receivers in Kansas this year,” Coryea said.
That the Trojan coach considers senior Ben Gottsch (6-0, 166) to be one of the best pure passers he’s seen at HHS, this team could pack considerable aerial firepower on offense.
“There’s no doubt about Ben’s ability, the only question is whether we can keep him healthy,” Coryea said.
Gottsch, who began 2007 as the backup quarterback to Spencer Brown, was injured early in the season. He continues to manage some discomfort in his back.
Standing in the wings as Gottsch’s backup is junior Jacob Fish (6-2, 143), who stepped in for an injured Brown last year and threw for 211 yards in Hillsboro’s 11-point regional-playoff loss to Conway Springs.
Also working out at quarterback are senior Tyler Jones (5-7, 168), whose athleticism helps offset his lack of experience at the position, and freshman Luke Moore (5-8, 158), who is coming off a strong middle-school career.
If opponents key on Jost as the Trojans’ primary target, Coryea likes his other options at wide receiver: seniors David Loewen (6-6, 196), Andy Klassen (6-2, 174) and Justin Wodke (6-1, 156), and juniors Taylor Hagen (6-1, 165), Daniel Dick (5-10, 134) and Jacob Edwards (5-11, 151).
Klassen and Loewen will see time at tight end, as well.
“I kind of hope the other teams do focus on Jost,” Coryea said with a smile.
Supplementing the air attack is a ground game fueled by the speed of senior Ishmael Morris (6-0, 168) and the power running of senior Isaac Leihy (6-1, 179).
Morris, the No. 2 back to all-league pick Jacob Yoder (1,133 yards) last season, gained 493 yards on 81 carries, better than six yards per attempt.
Leihy picked up 74 yards on 17 carries in a limited role.
Jones and junior Chris Couts (5-7, 141) are the leading candidates to fill the other slots in a four-back rotation.
Even with those weapons, Coryea, a lineman in college and the Trojans’ line coach for two decades, is quick to say that an offense is only as effective as the guys blocking for it up front.
He believes his linemen can compensate for their relative lack of size with better communication and a blocking scheme that depends more on finesse and positioning than brute strength—but they’ll have to prove it on the field.
“I’ve been really encouraged with they way they’ve been working together during these early days of practice,” Coryea said. “This group communicates much better than we did last year, and they are adapting well to the way we’re asking them to block.”
Anchoring the line will be senior tackle John Hein (6-4, 201), a first-team all-league pick last season. His greatest strength is the consistency of his work ethic, Coryea said.
“It’s to the point where I don’t even look at him in practice anymore,” he said. “I know he’s working hard and doing his job the way it should be done.”
Vying for the other tackle spot are sophomore Neal Kaiser (6-5, 205) and juniors Evan Just (5-10, 167) and A.J. Litchfield (6-3, 255), a newcomer to the program.
Returning as a starter at guard is senior Tyler Lofton (5-8, 197), with senior Jacob Kenney (5-10, 185), junior Jacob Craney (5-11, 209) and Just competing for playing time.
The Trojans will operate mostly out of the shotgun again this season, but finding a pool of candidates who consistently can make the critical center snap to the quarterback has been a challenge so far, Coryea said.
Senior Brandon Brown (5-11, 183) has established himself as the starter.
Matching last year’s productivity on offense—2,619 yards on the ground and 1,277 through the air for a total of 52 touchdowns—will be a challenge for this year’s team, but Coryea likes what he has seen so far in practice.
“Again, if we can stay healthy, we’ll be competitive,” he said.
The look on defense
The Trojan defense will incorporate a lot of the same players from the offensive side of the ball—with many of the same strengths and questions.
In the trenches, Hein and Lofton will anchor the front line at the tackle spots with Klassen and Loewen projected as starters at end.
At linebacker, Brandon Brown and Leihy return with the most varsity experience. Jones, Hagen and sophomore Chance Reece (5-11, 173) are the top candidates to complete the rotation.
In the secondary, Jost returns as an all-league honorable mention and Morris as a fellow starter. Edwards, Wodke, Dick and sophomore Ben Bebermeyer (5-10, 155) likely will fill the remaining openings.
Last season, the 6-5 Trojans averaged 33 points a game but gave up an average of 22.
“Our goal will be to continue the output on offense but tighten up our defense for this season,” Coryea said.
In recent years, special teams have been a bit of an adventure for the Trojans, particularly in the kicking game.
Leihy is the leading candidate for booting extra points, having made 10 of 14 last year while sharing duties with Spencer Brown (15-25). Sophomore Jake Wiebe (5-9, 143) worked on kicking over the summer, according to Coryea, and has been successful off a tee from 50 yards out.
Meanwhile, Loewen is the leading candidate to succeed all-league punter Yoder (37.3 yards per kick). The choice at long snapper is clear: Coryea said Klassen has the technical ability to be a D-1 long snapper if he can add some size.
“He gets (the ball) back there fast and on target every time,” Coryea said.
For the first time since the Mid-Central Activities Association was formed, Hillsboro, because of enrollment trends, will be competing in the smaller-school Mid Division instead of the larger-school Central Division.
Although the Trojans have held their own in the Central over the years, Coryea likes the move to the Mid.
“You take a pounding playing the big boys year after year,” he said. “This gives us a chance to play more of the schools that are our size.”
That doesn’t mean life in the Mid Division will be easy. Coryea looks for Marion and Hoisington to be formidable this fall.
“Marion has almost all of its guys coming back, and they’ve got some size,” he said. “I think this could be their year.
“Hoisington lost some key players, but they’ve got a lot of guys coming back—and they have a talented young class coming up.”
Hoisington was 10-2 in 2007 and made it to the sub-state championship game in Class 3A, losing to eventual champion Garden Plain.
Rounding out the Mid Division lineup are Lyons, Ellinwood and Sterling.
Halstead will move up to the Central Division.
Hillsboro’s district opponents this year will be Southeast of Salina on the road, followed by Herington and Marion at home.
The Trojans face a challenging start to the season with three of their first four games on the road.
They open at Salina on Sept. 5 against Sacred Heart, who went 10-0 last season before losing to Hoisington in the playoffs. The following Friday, perennial Central Division contender Smoky Valley comes to Reimer Field.
The schedule then takes the Trojans to Ellinwood and Lyons in successive weeks.
“However you cut it, it’s a challenging way to start the season,” Coryea said.
Game time Friday at Sacred Heart will be 7 p.m. Players and fans may recall Hillsboro’s dramatic 32-21 come-from-behind victory over the Knights in the 2006 sectional championship game.