ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
With experience, depth and speed in their favor, the Hillsboro Trojan football team expects to be in the hunt for league and district titles again this season.
“They’re really excited,” head coach Dustin McEwen said of his squad. “They plan on a successful season, similar to last year minus a few losses. They expect to get back to that level of getting through districts and contending for the league title with Collegiate.”
Even contending with the defending Class 3A state champs from Wichita would be a step forward for the Trojans, who finished 7-3 on the season and won the district championship but were whitewashed by the Spartans 37-0 during the regular season.
Collegiate is the unanimous pick by MCAA coaches to win the Mid Division and are expected by many to be a state title contender again this fall.
“They are the defending state champs,” McEwen said. “But I think we’ll have the best chance of competing with them of anybody in our league because of our experienced seniors and the speed we have.
“But Collegiate’s got that confidence and tradition going on from last year’s group,” he added. “They’ve got a lot of good kids back. They lost (Banks) Floodman and (Joe) Rheem, but pretty much everyone else is back.”
McEwen lost some key players, too, with the graduation of three All-MCAA first-team selections: Shrine Bowl pick Jeremy Loewen, who rolled up 1,075 yards and 92 points at tailback and played a tough corner on defense; Dan Funk, who led the team with 31 receptions for 518 yards and was a hard hitter in the defensive secondary; and Scott Winter, who was selected as an offensive tackle but also was a force for the Trojans as a defensive end.
At the same time, McEwen also has a lot of good kids back, including 12 seniors-10 of which either started last season or saw quality time in varsity games.
Expected to lead the offensive attack when Hillsboro opens their season on Friday will be senior quarterback Ronn Coates, who threw for 933 yards and completed 43 percent of his passes last season after setting marks of 1,456 yards and 52 percent completions as a sophomore.
Pushing Coates, though, for playing time is Dustin Jost, a junior whose mobility and quickness give the Trojans an option-style attack if they want it.
“Nobody, including me, really knows for sure how things are going to go there,” McEwen said of the quarterback spot. “Both are going to have some time in there, no doubt about it.
Having two strong quarterbacks is a bonus, he added.
“One thing it allows me to do is be a little more aggressive in my play-calling for a quarterback, knowing that I’ve got two of them,” McEwen said. “And maybe they can help us out in spots on defense, too.”
Another senior, Ross Duerksen, has won the nod to fill the shoes of Jeremy Loewen at tailback, which is the featured back in McEwen’s offensive scheme. The 6-0, 175-pound senior ran for 409 yards last season.
Backing him up are a pair of juniors, Alan Yoder (6-0, 170) and Kris Jones (6-0, 170). Yoder set the school record in the 100 meters this past spring. He and Jones were both effective last season in junior varsity games.
“I think we have three backs there who just haven’t had a chance to carry the ball a bunch at the varsity level, but they’ve all had great success at the JV level and at times filling in for the varsity,” McEwen said. “I think at the tailback spot, we’ve got quality people.”
Back for his third year at fullback is Phillip Terrell, a 6-1, 185-pound senior who combines speed with bowl-them-over strength.
“That’s always a great thing,” McEwen said of Terrell’s experience. “He’s seen it, he’s done it on the fly.”
Expected to fill Dan Funk’s shoes at wide receiver will be Layne Frick, a 6-2, 175-pound senior who caught 14 passes last season, including several in key situations.
“He showed us last year he can make some great plays,” McEwen said. “He maybe should have had more plays his way, but Dan was good, too, and (Coates) kind of leaned that way a little more.”
But the Trojans’ most intimidating weapon may by Adam Woods, a 6-4, 228-pound senior who likely will show up at several positions on offense.
“You’re going to find him lined up all over the field,” McEwen said. “He’s going to be a wideout, tight end, and he may be a fullback once in a while. We’re hoping the defense is really going to have to adjust to him.”
McEwen likes the speed he has at the skill positions.
“Like last year’s team, I think we still have great speed at the backs,” he said. “You look at those kids who are there-Yoder, Jones, Duerksen, Terrell-they’re all fast. Woods, for his size, is fast and can be threatening to a little defensive back.”
If the Trojans have some question marks offensively, they may be about the line.
The top returner is Andrew Hein, a 6-2, 205-pound senior who was an honorable-mention pick last season at tackle. Joining him at the other tackle spot will be Austin Jost, a 5-11, 222-pound junior.
The leading candidates at guard are Wade Sorensen and Erick Roble. Sorensen is a 6-2, 210-pound senior while Roble, who played fullback last season, is listed at 6-0, 220 pounds.
“We’ve moved Erick Roble to a guard,” McEwen said. “He’s not out of the picture at fullback yet. If we need a bigger-type fullback rather than Terrell, he’ll still get some carries. We just can’t throw him the ball because he’ll be wearing the number on a linemen’s jersey. Roble gives us a little more beef on the front line than some of the other guys we have behind him.”
The biggest question mark is at center, where Carson Greenhaw, a 6-0, 175-pound senior who started last season, is recuperating from a wrist injury and won’t be ready to play for the opener.
Ronnie Davis, a 5-9, 245-pound senior has been working out at the position, as well as Brian Thiessen, a 5-9, 195-pound sophomore, and Graham Ratzlaff, a 5-10, 200-pound junior.
Others battling for playing time on the line are juniors Danny Ratzlaff (5-9, 165) and Dustin Hendricks (5-11, 190).
McEwen said Davis may play center later in the season when the temperature cools, but he wants the first-team All-MCAA defensive tackle/nose guard to be fresh for defense.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” McEwen said. “He makes a lot of plays, sideline to sideline and still pressures the quarterback. He is just pretty talented there.”
Davis anchors a defense that appears to be tough, talented and tested on the line and at linebacker.
Joining Davis on the front line will be Sorensen and Austin Jost, who also have played tackle and end.
Starting at the other end may be Terrell, who was an honorable-mention pick last season in the secondary and played some linebacker.
“Terrell’s done a great job at free safety,” McEwen said. “What I was looking for in a defensive end this year is someone who is a little more athletic and has a little more wheels.
“From the linebacker spot, Terrell has seen a lot of defensive end plays,” he added. “He knows what’s tough for him and the angles he wants to take. That experience will help him at defensive end.”
Senior Jesse Janzen (6-0, 172) also could break in at that position, though he has no varsity experience.
Andrew Hein, as an MCAA first-team choice last season, will lead the linebacker corps at the middle spot, though he may drop down to the line from time to time, too.
He will be joined at linebacker by Woods on the strong side. Greenhaw will contend for the other spot-or defensive end-once he’s healthy and Erik Eoble will see some time at linebacker, too.
With Terrell moving down to the line and Jeremy Loewen, Dan Funk and Ryan Jilka all graduating, McEwen’s secondary will feature all new faces this season.
“The nice thing about the people we have back there is that they have some wheels,” said McEwen, who is looking for Yoder, Jones, Duerksen and Frick to cover a lot of deep territory.
Other players who could factor in are the two quarterbacks, Coates and Jost, and a 6-2, 170-pound sophomore, Tyler Peachey.
“We’ll be tested there,” McEwen said. “But I think our front seven is going to be pretty good.”
McEwen likes the attitude and leadership he’s seen from his senior so far. And he likes the number of players who show varsity potential, regardless of their year in school.
“I think we have more kids capable of playing at the varsity level then ever before,” McEwen said. “Even though the total number is only 43, we’ve got about 26 who are all trying to win a spot.”
Beyond league play, McEwen sees the biggest challenge in the Trojans’ four-team district to come from Hesston and Marion. Herington is the fourth team.
“Hesston is different this year from years past,” he said. “They probably had 20 seniors on the team last year and this year they have six.
“I’m sure they have quality juniors to supplement those seniors, and we don’t play them until the last game of the year-so everyone’s matured and had a chance to be in the fire.”
McEwen said Marion will return some talented players, especially in the offensive backfield. Key to their success will be finding a replacement for Jamey Cooper, their all-purpose quarterback from last season.