CHARLOTTESVILLE — Through tragedy there can be triumph.
Eastern Hancock head football coach Jim O’Hara believes deeply in those words. He sees them in action every day as his Royals band together at practice in honor of their fallen friend and teammate, Riley Settergren.
The pain has been indescribable for the Royals ever since Settergren, 17, lost his life in an automobile accident July 26, just days before the start of his senior season.
Football, however, has provided an outlet, O’Hara said, a positive realm where the team’s 48 rostered players share a singular purpose.
“We’ve suffered very much with Riley Settergren dying. We lost a brother, a great teammate, a kid who was all-in as far as the program is concerned,” O’Hara said. “We’re suffering and fighting through that, but the great thing about sports is it allows you to rally together, put your fists together and go play for each other. We want to play for Riley and the community of Eastern Hancock.”
In tribute to his older brother, Chase Settergren, a sophomore, plans to wear Riley’s No. 30 this season, while the team is working to show their support through effort, beginning with its opener at Greenfield-Central.
“Bad things happen in the world, and we have to just keep moving on. It’s very tough, but it’s better when you have other people there to help and support you,” O’Hara said. “The Settergrens are awesome people, and the Eastern Hancock community couldn’t be better. They’ve been very supportive.”
From top to bottom, the Royals football team and coaches have leaned on one another throughout the preseason. It’s heightened their collective spirit, an atmosphere O’Hara thinks could propel the program from a 5-6 record in 2016 toward a winning campaign this fall.
“We call it love and trust. You got to love your buddy. You got to play for your buddy. You got to trust your coaches, and the coaches have to trust the kids,” O’Hara said. “They have to do what we teach them to do, and then if we do that, we’re going to be successful.”
The Royals’ drive toward a potential fourth winning season in five years will be fueled by an abundance of experience on both sides of the football.
On offense alone, the team welcomes back eight starters, tabbing them as the most veteran group in the county.
The offensive line returns a sizable bunch of earth shakers in senior Wes Myers (6-foot, 185 pounds) at right guard, senior Jacob Eischen (6-3, 235 pounds) at left guard, senior Mitch Guinn (6-3, 210 pounds) at center, junior Brady Stephens (6-3, 230 pounds) at left tackle, and senior Jacob Miller (6-5, 210 pounds) at right tackle.
“These guys could be really good. They just have to understand their fundamentals and get off the ball,” O’Hara said of his linemen. “We have great size there, great leverage and and long-armed kids. They have to go, go, go. We have to get cray, cray, cray.”
Third-year varsity starter Jarett Lewis (5-10, 155 pounds) will utilize the protection up front to build off of a solid junior campaign. In 2016, he passed for 1,823 yards and 18 touchdowns while rushing for 123 yards and six scores.
In the backfield, senior A.J. Muegge (6-0, 180 pounds) returns at h-back where he ran for 359 yards and six touchdowns last year while also hauling in 39 receptions for 482 yards and four touchdowns.
Senior Spencer Maxwell (6-1, 170 pounds) will join Muegee in the backfield and will also backup Lewis at quarterback.
The receiving corp will consist of senior Clayton Cochard (6-0, 205 pounds), who posted 347 yards receiving and three touchdowns, senior Payton Wilkinson (5-7, 155 pounds), Chase Settergren (5-11, 155 pounds), senior Luke Splater (6-1, 175 pounds) and sophomore Connor Bennett (6-0, 150 pounds).
As a unit, the offense averaged 26.3 points and approximately 326 yards per game in 2016, but the team went 0-2 to open the season and lost four of their last five contests.
“We had a very inexperienced team last year. Even our seniors that played, they didn’t have a lot of experience. I remember telling them that we had to suffer a little bit before we were going to be successful. That’s just part of life, and one of the great things about football. It teaches you life lessons,” O’Hara said.
The defense, led by assistant coach Clayton Shultz, will learn daily, especially at the linebacker position in the team’s 3-5 front under new assistant varsity coach Doug Armstrong, the former head coach at Mt. Vernon.
“We both taught at Cathedral,” O’Hara said of Armstrong’s addition to the coaching staff. “We have a past. He’s a great one. Our defense will get better each week. I guarantee it.”
In the trenches, junior Alexander Burton (6-2, 220 pounds) will start at nose and will be paired with junior Dylan Grose (6-1, 200 pounds) and freshman Elijah Lawler (6-1, 195 pounds).
Outside linebacker duties will go to Maxwell (101 tackles, two interceptions) and sophomore Garrett Friesen (5-10, 160 pounds).
Guinn will start at middle linebacker, while sophomore Harrison Collins (6-0, 175 pounds) and Cochard (78 tackles, 13 for a loss) will patrol the inside.
Muegge and Bennett will start at cornerback with Wilkinson (22 tackles, two interceptions) at free safety.
“We’re playing more guys both ways then I want, but it is what it is,” O’Hara said. “We have 48 on the roster, and we have the right 48. They’re kids that want to be there.”
Their desire to win will be crucial as Class 2A Eastern Hancock shifts over to Sectional 37 where perennial power Scecina Memorial (a nine-time sectional winner), rival Knightstown, 2016 sectional champ Milan, and Triton Central, among others, reside.
“The sectional is a very good sectional,” O’Hara said. “We have a couple of ranked teams in the state. It’s not suppose to be easy, so that’s the way we approach it. It’s suppose to be hard work. If you want to earn something, you have to go get it.”