Veteran line key for Trojan football return to success

This group of seniors and returning letter-winners will form the nucleus of the Hillsboro High School football team this fall. Pictured are: top row (from left), Kentrell Miller, Grant Knoll, Josh Funk, Cody Craney, Jakob Hanschu; front row, Graham Pankratz, Jesse Meier, Justus Hilliard, Levi Mendoza, David Dick.
This group of seniors and returning letter-winners will form the nucleus of the Hillsboro High School football team this fall. Pictured are: top row (from left), Kentrell Miller, Grant Knoll, Josh Funk, Cody Craney, Jakob Hanschu; front row, Graham Pankratz, Jesse Meier, Justus Hilliard, Levi Mendoza, David Dick.
Publicity shines brighter on a football team?s skill positions, but coaches like Hillsboro?s Lance Sawyer know it?s the play of the offensive and defensive line that builds a foundation for a team?s success.

That?s why, despite losing most of his skill players to graduation, Sawyer is optimistic about his team?s ability to rebound from a 3-6 record a year ago.

This fall, the Trojans return four-fifths of their interior offensive line, led by first-team all-league guard Jesse Meier. Sawyer expects the impact of this group to be dramatic.

?Our line has been impressive, and we?re going to have to use those guys to move the ball down the field,? Sawyer said. ?Hope?fully, we run the ball a little bit more than we did last year. Those guys are definitely the strength of the team.?

In 2013, the Trojans ran two pass plays for every running play largely because the line was young and inexperienced.

Joining Meier, a 5-10, 185 pound senior, at guard is classmate Cody Craney (6-0, 205). Competing for the tackle spots are junior Levi Mendoza (5-8, 175) and seniors Josh Funk (6-0, 160) and Kentrell Miller (6-3, 275), a transfer from Tennessee.

?Kentrell Miller is going to help a lot and add some beef to the line,? Sawyer said.

Anchoring the line at center is senior Graham Pan?kratz (6-2, 190), who has added both weight and strength thanks to a dedicated effort in the weight room.

?He?s been impressive so far and had a great off-season,? Sawyer said.

Beyond the interior line, Sawyer said senior Grant Knoll (6-1, 160), freshman Jacob Funk (5-11, 143) and possibly senior David Dick (6-1, 175) are the leading candidates at tight end.

?We?ll switch up,? Sawyer said. ?Grant Knoll?s there right now. Jacob Funk looked impressive there, and we may have to move David Dick in (from wide receiver).?

Sawyer will look to another newcomer, Jeffrey Jorgenson (5-10, 137) from Colorado, to kick extra points and field goals.

?He?s impressive, a really good kicker,? Sawyer said of the sophomore.

Receivers and backs

Jacob Funk, a candidate for wide receiver as well tight end, is one of several underclassmen who have a shot at making an impact this season at the skill positions.

Another freshman, Elliot Ollenburger (5-5, 101), has impressed Sawyer at wide-receiver.

?He?s small but has great hands,? Sawyer said. ?He runs routes just like his brother (Evan, an all-league performer last season) did. He?s going to be good.?

The biggest unknown for the Trojans is the backfield. One of two returning players from last season, running back Justus Hilliard (5-6, 165), is stepping into the quarterback position as a senior.

?He?s never done that before,? Sawyer said. ?We started midway through the summer working with him. He has progressed.

?He?s still a little bit raw throwing the ball, but with the way we?re going to have to run our offense this year, him having the ball in his hands is going to be beneficial. He gets to make all the decisions.?

Senior Jakob Hanschu (5-9, 152), who ran for 59 yards on 19 carries a year ago, will fill one running back spot. The other spot is up for grabs between three sophomores: Tyson Reimer (5-9, 165), Dusten Plenert (5-7, 145) and Braden Vogt (5-8, 140).

?Our backfield will be young,? Sawyer said. ?But I think these younger kids will step in and play. I?ve been pleased with how our young kids have developed so far.?

Improvement on defense

Defensively, Sawyer said his team has to tackle better this season if it expects to win.

?That was one thing we really struggled with last year,? he said. ?Two years ago it seemed we played so fast on defense, and last year we played so timid. I believe our kids are going to be ready to hit.?

Anchoring the defense is a trio of experienced linebackers in Mendoza, Craney and Meier.

?Right now, we?re looking at our linebacker corps as being a strength,? Sawyer said.

Candidates for front-line duty include Josh Funk and Reimer at the ends, and Miller and sophomore Nathan Simhiser (5-6, 196) at tackles.

?Nathan Simhiser has been one of the most impressive guys we?ve had all summer,? Sawyer said.

After a solid summer in the weight room with about 90 percent of the team participating, Sawyer believes his team will be stronger, faster and more explosive than a year ago.

?That?s what we really needed last year, and we just didn?t have it,? he said. ?I think our speed will be much improved this year.?

Season outlook

The Central Kansas League officially expands to 12 teams this season with the addition of Hoisington and Larned. Joining Hillsboro in the six-team East Division are Halstead, Haven, Hess?ton, Sterling and Smoky Valley, which will count as league games.

A year ago, Smoky Valley and Hesston both were undefeated in their respective former divisions, and Sawyer believes both will be contenders within the same division this year. He said Halstead is going to be good and Sterling should be improved.

The Trojans will host Hoisington (Sept. 26) and Lyons (Oct. 10) from the CKL?s West Division for non-league games.

While league play is important, Sawyer said he and his team are looking to district play and beyond.

?These kids really want to get back to the playoffs,? Sawyer said.

Joining the Trojans in their Class 3A district this year are Hesston, Southeast of Saline and Council Grove.

?Rebounding from last year?s season is going to be our goal,? Sawyer said. ?I think the kids are ready to do it. They?re optimistic about it.

?We?re going to rely heavily on our seniors this year, but I think those younger kids will step in and play.?

The Trojans open their season Friday at home with a 7 p.m. matchup against Sterling.