CHARLOTTESVILLE — When their teammate Riley Settergren was killed in a tragic car accident before the season, the morale of the Eastern Hancock Royals took a tremendous hit. But through sheer force of will, the team triumphed through the tragedy over the course of the season, leading the Royals to their biggest challenge to date.

The Royals (6-4) expect a lot of resistance when they go on the road tonight for the Class 2A Sectional 37 semifinals against No. 2 Indianapolis Scecina Memorial (9-1). But the Royals, pushing forward for their fallen teammate, are not fazed by the challenge ahead. They welcome it.

Averaging 196.9 total yards per game, Eastern Hancock quarterback Jarett Lewis hopes to help lead the team through to the Sectional 37 final. Bonding through their loss has made the team stronger, Lewis said, allowing them to regain focus while still honoring their fallen friend’s memory.

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“It’s tough. You don’t expect something like that to happen,” Lewis said. “But when it does, you start to appreciate life’s good things a little bit more, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Lewis and his teammates have carefully studied Scecina’s defensive tactics on film before practice, he said. They followed up with hours in the cold weather running drills, perfecting their capabilities on both sides of the ball. With Scecina ranking second in the state, the Royals are well-aware of their opponent’s skill.

“Not everyone knows about us. No one expects us to get the win,” Lewis said. “But as long as we do our job, study the film, and play our guts out, we have a chance.”

Another key player, nicknamed “Mr. Everything” by head coach Jim O’Hara is A.J. Muegge, who was selected as the overall offensive and special teams player of the game against Centerville last week, managing 21 carries for 105 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Muegge’s abilities to motivate his team and light up the scoreboard have led to him becoming a natural team leader.

Losing Settergren was difficult, Muegge said. The only way they learned to cope with the loss of their teammate was by sticking together.

“Right at the start, you just don’t believe it. One of your brothers isn’t here,” Muegge said. “But in those times, we were all together, and that really helped, being able to talk to one another and rely on one another.

“I think this team is more of a brotherhood than any group maybe we’ll ever be a part of in our lives,” he added.

According to Muegge, the team is just as tight-knit when they’re not on the field. Every Friday night the team heads to his house after a game to eat food and talk tactics. They get donuts together in the morning before gearing up for next week’s challenge.

“Our coaches throughout the year have always told us that we like each other too much,” Muegge said with a laugh. “We’re just so close.”

O’Hara said everybody has coped with Riley’s death differently, but his team has carried on through the pain with a sense of unity. Throughout the season, the team sported purple belts, Settergren’s favorite color, and talked about their fallen comrade at practice daily.

“We know he’s with us, and he’ll always be with us,” O’Hara said. “We miss him tremendously.”

With that united strength, the Royals proved last week they had the tenacity to hang with top Class 2A teams when they scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second half of their battle against Centerville.

At the highest competitive level, every team needs to catch a break once in a while, O’Hara said. Taking on Scecina Memorial will be no small challenge. But provided his team takes the field with a sense of urgency on every play — while hopefully catching a break or two in the process — the Royals will have what it takes to triumph this weekend.

“These kids deserve everything they get,” O’Hara said. “They’ve been through a lot, and they’ve hung in there. They’ve persevered, they have passion for the game and we call that grit.”

The hearts of the Royals football team are full, braced for the challenge ahead. The team aims to confront the opposition ahead of them tonight as a family, knowing their fallen brother will be playing right alongside them until the fight is over.

“We’ve done nothing but play for him, but that’s what we used to say,” Lewis said. “Now we’re saying we want to play with him. Because we know he’s here, and we know he’s helping us.”