HHS football rebuilds for success

Following an 0-9 season with no seniors, the Hillsboro roster this fall features 19 seniors and returning letter-winners. Pictured are, first row (from left) Elias Werth, Thomas Larabee, Jeffrey Jorgenson, Ben Koop, Brooks Gardner, Jorge Hanschu, Brandon Klassen, Joe Knoll, Elliot Ollenburger; back row, Wes Shaw, Carson Herbel, Westin Etheridge, Travis King, Brodie Rathbone, Jacob Funk, Tyson Reimer, Kaden Kleiner, Braden Vogt, Austin Welch.
Following an 0-9 season with no seniors, the Hillsboro roster this fall features 19 seniors and returning letter-winners. Pictured are, first row (from left) Elias Werth, Thomas Larabee, Jeffrey Jorgenson, Ben Koop, Brooks Gardner, Jorge Hanschu, Brandon Klassen, Joe Knoll, Elliot Ollenburger; back row, Wes Shaw, Carson Herbel, Westin Etheridge, Travis King, Brodie Rathbone, Jacob Funk, Tyson Reimer, Kaden Kleiner, Braden Vogt, Austin Welch.
With a new coach at the helm and a bevy of varsity-tested players on the roster, Hillsboro’s football team is ready to relaunch a tradition of success on the heels of the school’s first winless season in 65 years.

Devin Metzinger, who takes over as head coach after a two-year stint as an assistant at Bluestem High School, said last season’s record hasn’t been a focal point this fall. The focus is on mental toughness.

“We talk about it a lot in practice—it’s that mindset of it’s going to get better, we’re going to be OK,” Metzinger said. “I’ve told the guys multiple times that something bad is going to happen (during the season), and when it does happen, how will we respond to it?

“At the player level, when something bad happens how are you going to respond? Are you going to be upset? Are you going to be down on yourself? Or are you going to line up again and do it better the next time?”

The bright side of having no seniors on the roster last year is that a lot of those freshmen, sophomores and juniors return already knowing what Friday night is all about. Metzinger likes the mix of athletes he sees on his 30-man roster.

“We’re in a good position right now because we know in the summertime that we had a lot of skill-position players, that we were going to be able to go two-deep in some places, and be able to rotate and keep guys fresh.

“We’re to a point now where we think we may not have 10 guys that we can rotate a full line, but we probably have seven or eight guys who can rotate in and get a breather.

“That’s going to be beneficial on Friday nights, where we can get guys out for a few plays, maybe even a drive, where they can regroup, get rehydrated and then get back in there,” he said.

“That’s big for us, especially on a roster size of 30, to have that option,” Met­zinger said. “The other thing is, we’re trying to find spots for all these guys. We have a lot of guys we want to get on the field, and unfortunately we can have only 11 guys on the field at once. We’re just trying to make sure the best 11 guys are out there for each play.”

Offense

Returning to lead the offense are two battle-tested quarterbacks, junior Kaden Kleiner (6 feet, 3 inches, 160 pounds) and sophomore Jorge Hanschu (5-10, 170).

Kleiner completed 55 percent of his passes (100-183) for 1,095 yards and seven touchdowns. Hanschu added 424 yards and four touchdowns through the air with 52 percent completions (40-76), and he ran for 274 yards on 61 carries.

“Kaden and Jorge are still competing for that quarterback spot,” Metzinger said. “That will probably be a competition up to game week.

“Kaden throws a really nice ball, Jorge does a really good job of reading and running the ball. Their strengths complement each other pretty well. Both are doing a really good job staying focused in practice.”

As for running backs, Metzinger said senior Brandon Klassen (5-6, 150) and sophomore Brooks Gardner (5-9, 165) have done a good job so far. The Trojan coach also has been impressed with the size and speed of freshman Caleb Potucek (5-8, 160).

“He’s a young guy and still has a lot to learn, but he’s doing a really good job.”

Anchoring the line play is senior Tyson Reimer (5-11, 180), who transitioned from the backfield to the offensive line midway through last season.

“Tyson has done a great job and is getting better every day,” Metzinger said. “He’s really embraced that shift. He gotten better and stronger over the summer, and I think he’s coming in at a really good spot right now to be a leader on the line.”

Another player making the transition to the offensive line this fall is senior Ben Koop (5-11, 175).

“His learning curve has been exponential.” Met­zinger said. “He’s getting it, he’s figuring it out. He’s a strong kid and doing a great job—and that’s on offensive and defensive line.”

Metzinger said he has several strong candidates at wide receiver, but cited two who have been particularly impressive in the early going: senior Carson Herbel (6-3, 160) and junior Elliot Ollenbur­ger (5-4, 140).

“Carson Herbel just seems to have sure hands,” Metzinger said. “He’s not one who is going to wow you on the field with blazing speed, but he has sure hands, and he’s always in the right spot at the right time. He’s a good kid and a good leader.

“Elliot Ollenburger is a playmaker. We just need to give him a little room and let him turn it loose.”

The supporting corps of receivers include seniors Braden Vogt (6-1, 180) and Jeffery Jorgenson (6-0, 155), juniors Jacob Funk (6-3, 195) and Elias Werth (6-0, 155), and sophomores Darian Ratzlaff (6-0, 170) and Joe Knoll (6-2, 160).

Last fall, Herbel and Vogt received all-league honorable mention at the receiver position.

Offense

Joining Reimer and Koop as leading candidates for defensive line duty are sophomore Wes Shaw (6-2, 250), juniors Jaden Priest 6-0, 160), Brodie Rath­bone (6-1, 180) and Colin Settle (6-0, 190), and seniors Westin Ethe­ridge (5-11, 220) and Travis King (5-10, 150).

“I think we’re sitting at around six guys to rotate through four spots,” Met­zinger said. “That’s going to be big for us. As long as we can keep those guys fresh, keep them moving, we’re going to be sitting good.”

Metzinger looks to Bra­den Vogt to anchor his linebacker corps.

“This isn’t his first time around as a linebacker,” Metzinger said. “He knows what he needs to be looking for and where to be. He’s done a good job of leading, and helping out some of those younger guys.”

Two underclassmen, Gardner and Potucek, are strong candidates for the other two linebacker spots. Hanschu is another strong option, but it may depend on his energy investment on the offensive side of the ball.

“The biggest thing with Jorge is making sure he’s fresh, and when he’s fresh he’s on the field,” Metzinger said.

The Trojan coach said the status of his defensive backs has improved significantly since their 7-on-7 competitions this summer.

“This summer we had a lot of problems with people getting behind us and burning us deep,” he said. “I think we’ve made a transition in that over the first week of practice. We’re making sure we keep everything in front of us and are coming up to make plays.”

As is the case with wide receivers, the Trojan coach said he has a lot of options for his defensive secondary.

“Jeffery Jorgen­son done a pretty good job there—he’s a senior who we expect to be a leader,” Metzinger said. “Carson, just like he’s a sure-handed wide receiver, he’s a sure fit to lock down a wide receiver. Joe Knoll is kind of the same way—he’s always where he’s supposed to be and at the right time.”

Knoll, a sophomore, received all-league honorable mention for his defense as a freshman.

Outlook

In the larger picture, Metzinger said team speed may be the Trojans’ biggest asset this fall.

“We’re not going to wow anybody with our strength, but maybe we can surprise them a little bit with our speed,” he said. “We’ve been extremely focused all week and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve put a lot of stuff in, defensively and offensively.

“That allows us to start repping those things and start improving on them—finding the little glitches and getting them fixed now so that come Week 1, we’re confident when we take the field.”

The Trojans will open the season Sept. 2 when they host Lyons at Joel Wiens Stadium. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m.

“We’ve seen Lyons this summer,” Metzinger said. “I think we’ll be prepared for them. We’ve seen them at 7-on-7, so we know what we’re getting there and we’ll be ready for that.”