CHARLOTTESVILLE — Weekly high school football rankings make for great chit-chat, but for Eastern Hancock senior linebacker Owen Hunt and the seniors, they leave it at just that … talk.
A starting safety for the Royals two years ago when the program reached Lucas Oil Stadium for the Class A state title game, Hunt admits the numbers game undercut the eventual state runner-ups.
So with the 2015 team surging from “also receiving votes” status to No. 6 and now fourth-best in Class 2A after a 41-7 trouncing of rival 3A Indian Creek in Week 3, the Royals aren’t running out to collect press clippings.
“We hear about it, but it doesn’t really mean anything,” Hunt said. “To a lot of us seniors, going to state a couple years back, we were concerned about it then. But with us having a good season so far, we’re not as concerned. When we went into that state game No. 1, we expected to win, and obviously we didn’t make it out of there with the blue ring.
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“When we see we’re in the top 10, that’s cool, but we’re just trying to do what we do best, and that’s winning ball games.”
Through the first three weeks, coach Jim O’Hara’s “quick and quazy” group has been masters of their craft.
Eastern Hancock is off to its second 3-0 start in three years and first since the state contending team of 2013 under former coach Pat Echeverria.
In the season opener, they manhandled last year’s arch-nemesis 2A Northeastern, 33-7, on the road.
The next week, Eastern Hancock opened its Mid-Indiana Football Conference schedule with a 33-13 home win against Class A South Decatur.
Last week’s road victory dropped the 2014 conference champs behind the title-hungry Royals in the standings.
It was a typical Friday night for the Royals, which are averaging 35.7 points per game this season and have won 33 games since the senior class first joined the program in 2012.
The team was quick, flew to the ball, prevented the big plays, scored in clusters and utilized their strength and conditioning to compensate for their lack of size.
But there’s always room for improvement, said O’Hara.
“Honestly, the first two games we didn’t really play up to our potential. Credit to the coaching staff, we’ve gotten better,” the coach downplayed when discussing his team’s hot start. “Against Indian Creek, we got some breaks.”
Down early 7-0 to Indian Creek after a nearly seven-minute opening drive, the Royals broke their opponents’ spirits with 41-unanswered points despite contending with a two-hour lightning delay.
Sophomore quarterback Jarett Lewis competed 7 of 13 pass attempts for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Devin Denny led the team with 110 rushing yards on 14 carries, and Matt Bowman added 10 carries for 58 yards and three touchdowns.
Denny also caught two passes for 65 yards and a score while senior Austin Smith added three receptions for 67 yards and one touchdown.
The defense, led by Hunt, cracked down to uphold their 9.0 points allowed average.
“Whatever it takes to win is the main goal,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter how many points we put up, how many yards we get, as long as we scored more than the other team and win at the end is the most important.”
The team’s philosophy begins at the top with O’Hara, who believes victory is earned through preparation and resolve.
Winning his 100th career game last week through 14 seasons — with stints at Hamilton Southeastern and Cathedral — the coach treated triple digits with a singular appreciation.
“I didn’t even know it was 100,” O’Hara said. “It wasn’t until after the game when one of my assistants told me congratulations. … I didn’t even think about it. For me, any win is a good win.”
True victory, however, comes from “O.Y.O.” or “on your own,” O’Hara and his coaching staff emphasize daily. To be the best, he says, players must want to get better “on your own.”
“I’ve learned a lot over the years, and we’ve kind of downsized our approach to the game. We don’t practice very long. We don’t meet on the weekends. We’re trying to get the kids to do things on their own together,” said O’Hara, who owns a 100-51 career record and a state title in 2006 with Cathedral.
“That’s the philosophy of building trust and camaraderie. The kids have to take ownership. We can’t do everything for them. They have to go out and live. I think they’re starting to buy-in.”
The team’s recent results are evidence of the wholesale approach, and the chemistry formed from the outset has been rapid.
With the loss of several key seniors from last season’s 10-3 sectional championship team, the new group has blended seamlessly with the incorporation of five sophomore starters, including Lewis under center and Mitch Guinn on the offensive line.
Anchored by four returning offensive linemen in seniors Jared Waterman, Pat Seal, Austin Bednarski, Grant Friesen, the Royals are treading up — and faster than expected.
“Our first game, we had a lot of big plays. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to come that fast, especially because we had a lot of new guys that were inexperienced,” Smith said. “I figured it would take a few weeks to get into things and game ready.”
Facing their third conference opponent in three weeks at Milan on Friday night with two more left on the schedule, the Royals haven’t peaked quite yet.
The seniors already have that date circled — and it’s more than two months away.
“Blue rings are all I dream about,” Hunt said. “Ever since sophomore year when we played out there, and walking off the field with a red ribbon … that’s all I’ve wanted, that blue ring.”
Eastern Hancock (3-0) at Milan (1-2)
GAME TIME: 7 p.m. at Milan
COACHES: Eastern Hancock, Jim O’Hara, 13-3 in 2nd year at school, 100-51 in 14th year overall. Milan, Rob Page, 8-7 in 2nd year at school.
SAGARIN RATINGS: Eastern Hancock, 66.76, 97th overall, 5th in Class 2A. Milan, 52.17, 180th overall, 24th in Class 2A.
LAST MEETING: Eastern Hancock 33-14 on Sept. 12, 2014.