ZIONSVILLE — Pat Echeverria is no stranger to Hancock County football.
Prior to taking over the Zionsville football program at the start of the 2014-15 season, the fifth-year head coach spent his first three seasons as the head man at Eastern Hancock. He led the Royals to a 14-1 record and semistate berth in 2013, allowing other coaching opportunities to open up.
Now, Echeverria is returning to a place he once called home in search of one more win as his Class 5A No. 15 Eagles are set to visit No. 1 New Palestine tonight in the regional championship.
And although he never coached against the Dragons while at Eastern Hancock, Echeverria said he is very familiar with what the state’s top team has done during the past three seasons.
“It’s kind of neat. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me from the Eastern Hancock community wishing me luck,” Echeverria said.
“It’s definitely good to be going back to Hancock County. (It was) great memories, a great experience and a great community out there.
“We are definitely going to have our hands full; they (New Palestine) are dynamic offensively.”
Echeverria finished with a 3-7 record in his first season with the Royals and followed that up with a 6-6 campaign before the memorable state championship run in his final year at the school. He said he has taken many of the same expectations and coaching techniques, despite the school’s size, to Zionsville from Eastern Hancock.
“It’s really very similar, the commitment to the weight room is probably the biggest thing at both places,” he said. “If you really want to be a competitive football team, especially in the HCC (Hoosier Crossroads Conference), I’ve learned you have to have strong kids.”
And Echeverria knows the team his Eagles play today will be strong, physical and dynamic.
“They are big and strong up front and they move people,” he said of undefeated New Palestine. “The quarterback (Alex Neligh) is dynamic in both the passing and running game. Their fullback (Nick Brickens) is a bruiser; he’s a super tough runner. It’s almost like thunder and lightning.
“Their defense is super sound. They are physical in their front six, they’re well-coached and they get after it. They are right up there at the top of the list.”
But judging the Eagles by their 5-6 record might not be the best idea.
Zionsville plays in arguably the toughest football conference in the state with the likes of Hamilton Southeastern, Fishers and Avon to name a few. In fact, the team did not win a conference game this season (0-6). The Eagles did dominate outside of it, though, winning the majority of their games by at least three scores.
They key to defeating the Dragons, however, will rely on running the football and team defense, Echeverria said.
“Anytime you’re playing in November, you have to emphasize running the football,” he said. “We want to try and keep their offense off the field. We just have to be efficient and willing to move the chains.
“And we have to play team defense and try to keep everything in front of us.”
Getting the majority of the touches for Zionsville will be junior running back Brendan Mikesell, who has put up Neligh- and Brickens-like numbers on the ground with 1,739 yards and 21 touchdowns (7.5 yards per carry). He had 177 yards and two scores in a loss to 6A No. 4 Hamilton Southeastern.
“He’s not the biggest kid in the world, but he’s a really tough runner,” Echeverria explained. “He’s an extremely explosive athlete.”
Senior quarterback Trevor Liechty leads an offense averaging 30 points per game and has been playing more efficient as of late, according to Echeverria. He has 1,836 passing yards to go along with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The Eagles spread the ball on the outside, with six receivers totaling 14 or more catches this season and four with over 300 yards.
Junior middle linebacker Drew Williamson leads the defensive unit with 133 tackles and three sacks as nine Zionsville players have at least 50 tackles for a defense allowing 29 points per game.
Echeverria isn’t the only Eagle familiar with Hancock County. New Palestine senior receiver Logan Greene is hosting his cousin, Zionsville senior defensive back Nolan Elsbury. The two could line up against one another, and the families even made sweatshirts with the words “House Divided” across the front.