Hillsboro football coach Devin Metzinger, in his second season, expects his team to take another step closer to the school’s winning gridiron tradition.
“When I go to other places or I go home, and I tell them I coach at Hillsboro, it’s amazing to hear all the people who know about Hillsboro football, who remember playing or watching Hillsboro football,” he said.
“It wasn’t that long ago. We want to return to that level of competition and that level of respect. It may be a long goal, but it’s what we’re aiming to do every year.”
Metzinger came on board one year after the Trojans’ first winless season in 65 years. In his inaugural season last fall, the Trojans registered a 3-6 record, including a season-ending upset of heavily favored Southeast of Saline in the district playoffs.
“We talk about success as making progress and improving week in and week out,” he said. “As far as the whole year goes, success would be a 4-5 record—that is a progression, getting one more win.
“We still set our sights and our expectations higher than that,” he added. “We want a winning season now, and we want to make the playoffs. If we can get that, I think that would be great.”
Metzinger said the upset win over Southeast of Saline helped his athletes see what they could accomplish.
“I think the excitement carried more into summer and off-season preparation,” he said. “Once the season started, all of that kind of went away. We tried to make the focus what we do now, not what we did back then.”
On offense, the Trojans will look to senior quarterback Kaden Kleiner (6-foot-3, 160 pounds) for both leadership and productivity.
“We’re looking for him not only to continue what he did last year, but improve from where he was last year,” Metzinger said. “I felt like last year he got better each week.
“That was capped off by the Southeast of Saline game, when he threw for nearly 200 yards and ran for nearly 200 yards. It gave us glimpse of what he’s capable of.”
Metzinger added: “We’re going to have to have production like that week in and week out—not necessarily to that degree, but at some level of it.
“We saw glimpses of it last year, and this year we’re hoping he will continue to develop. He’s a lot better quarterback right now than he was at this point last year.”
In 2016, Kleiner completed 103 of 193 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns. On the ground, he picked up 294 yards on 70 carries.
In the passing game, Jacob Funk (6-3, 195) returns at wide receiver after leading the team with 452 yards on 32 receptions in 2016.
“I think he’ll have a another good year, and hopefully even a better year,” Metzinger said. “His size gives a quarterback the option to throw it up and let him go get it when he’s under distress.”
On the other side of the line, junior Joe Knoll (6-2, 160) will get increasing reps as a receiver, Metzinger said. “He’s a taller kid and he runs great routes. He’s always going to find himself open because of that.”
As for inside receivers, junior Darian Ratzlaff (6-0, 170) has the nod at this point.
“It’s amazing what one season will do,” Metzinger said. “(Darian) seems a lot more confident, a lot more nosey and a lot more willing to lay it out there and get after it. We’re excited what he’ll be able to do this year.”
The Trojan running game will miss the contributions of Jacob Hanschu, who led the team with 441 yards on 99 carries as a sophomore. Hanschu suffered a knee injury during the baseball season and will be sidelined this fall.
To fill the void, Metzinger is looking to junior Brooks Gardner (5-9, 165) and sophomore Caleb Potucek (5-8, 160), who both have Friday night experience.
“The nice thing about having both of them is you can’t go wrong either way as the starting running back,” Metzinger said. “Both of them are explosive, and both are getting better and better about reading the defense and blocking.
“We’re excited about both of them. It will be nice to keep each one of them fresh, especially since they’ll be starting linebackers as well,” Metzinger said.
Critical to the success of the offense is the front line. Metzinger is looking to junior Wes Shaw (6-2, 250) and seniors Brodie Rathbone (6-1, 180) and Colin Settle (6-0, 190) to anchor the line.
“Last year we played him at tackle, this year we’ll play him at guard and let him show off a little more of his athleticism,” Metzinger said. “He’ll get out on runs and block the edges on pulls and plays like that.”
Metzinger said his goal on offense is to establish consistency and balance.
“Last year, if you go back and look, one week we were great and had 300 yards of offense, and the next week we were held to 100 yards,” Metzinger said. “This year there’s a lot of emphasis on consistency and finishing drives.”
As for the run-pass mix, Metzinger said, “We always want to be balanced. But each week balance is a little bit different, depending on who we play and what they have defensively.
“Being balanced may not be 50-50, it might be 70-30. In order to stay balanced, sometimes we have to throw it a little more, and sometimes it means keeping the defense on its toes by running it a little more.”
When the Trojans score, Shaw will be called upon to handle the kicking duties, with senior Kaden Ward (5-10, 147) backing him up.
Metzinger believes his defense is already better in the preseason then it was at end of last season, particularly in the front line.
Rathbone, Settle and Westin Etheridge (5-11, 220), all seniors, will anchor the line, while Shaw moves from line to linebacker.
“Wes is a big, athletic kid,” Metzinger said. “We can put him at linebacker, where he can fly around and make plays. He’s a gem, and we can put him out there to see what he can do.”
Gardner and Potucek will join Shaw as linebackers. Metzinger said their approach to defense is the same as offense.
“They’re just explosive,” he said. “Both of them love contact, love football. They’re downhill and not afraid of anything.”
Metzinger said the defensive secondary is the most fluid aspect of the defense as the first game nears.
“It’s a conversation we’re having every night—who’s going to be taking those starting spots,” Metzinger said.
Leading candidates are Jacob Funk, who is new to that position, as well as returning juniors Ratzlaff and Knoll.
“Jacob didn’t necessarily play defense last year, but I think he’s excited about being over there,” Metzinger said. “He’s doing the right things and getting after it. The same goes for Darian and Joe. It’s going to be a matter of where they fit, and where they help us best.”
With senior Elliot Ollenburger sidelined for the season with a recent practice injury, coaches will be looking for additional players to step up.
While Central Kansas League powers Hesston, Halstead and Hoisington had large graduating classes, Metzinger expects them to reload and be title contenders again this season.
In district play, the Trojans will again face Hesston, Marion and Southeast of Saline.
“Marion still has a great senior class over there, Southeast graduated a big senior class, so it will be interesting to see what they have by the end of the season.”
The Trojans open the 2017 season Friday at Lyons with a 7 p.m. kickoff. The Lions were 0-9 last season.