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Football Preview: Eastern Hancock

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Inheriting a strong core from a team that finished as the 2013 Class A State Runner-up, first-year Eastern Hancock coach Jim O’Hara isn’t attempting to reinvent the wheel.

And though the former Cathedral coach is endeavoring to continue the Royals’ recent run of success, O’Hara is going to go about it his way.

“It’s taken some time to get to know each other, what my expectations are. And they have expectations. We’ve got to be on the same page,” said O’Hara, hired in December by EH after Pat Echeverria left for Zionsville. “Pat Echeverria was a heck of a coach and had a heck of a system, but I’m not Pat. I’m Jim O’Hara, and I’m used to doing things a different way.

“So we’re getting to know each other. The kids have responded greatly. They are very, very good young men and they want to be good and they want to be coached and they want discipline – and that’s what we’re giving them. We’re still figuring each other because it’s the first week. After two or three games we’ll get a rhythm.”

After 3-7 and 6-6 – plus a sectional championship berth – records in its first two years under Echeverria, the blue-and-white exploded onto the state football scene a year ago, claiming Mid-Indiana Football Conference, sectional, regional and semistate titles. The Royals finished 14-1, falling 20-10 in the Class A State Finals to Tri-Central.

The key to the Royals’ dominance – they were fourth in the state in margin of victory at 37.13 points per game – was Echeverria’s up-tempo spread offense, which led the state in scoring at 52.93 ppg and cracked 70 or more points three times.

Running back Spencer Gilbert was the beating heart behind EH’s unforgettable run, breaking school records for single-game (360 yards), single-season (2,916 – eighth-highest in school history) and career (5,423) rushing. Gilbert, now a Ball State Cardinal, scored 308 points in 2013, the seventh highest scoring season in state history.

And while it would be completely ludicrous to say the Royals won’t miss Gilbert, they do have enough returning firepower to score consistently – though reaching 52.93 ppg is probably out the question.

All-State wide receiver/kicker/punter/kick returner/punt returner Cooper Henderson is back in the fold after accounting for 1,694 all-purpose yards (1,001 rushing) last fall. Henderson, who led the team with 41 receptions, tallied 185 points last year via 21 touchdowns, two field goals, 37 extra points and eight two-point conversions.

Henderson, a five-foot-10, 175-pound senior, also had 74 tackles and a Hancock County-high six interceptions, but will be seeing less time on defense this fall due to O’Hara’s platoon system.

At quarterback, senior Logan Splater (6-2, 185) is set to share time with fellow fourth-year Austin Lacy (6-0, 160). Splater was All-State Honorable Mention a year ago, completing over 60 percent of his passes for 1,213 yards, 18 touchdowns and five picks. Splater also rushed for 579 yards, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

Lacy saw action in 11 games, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for 491 yards, nine TDs and two INTs.

Eastern Hancock’s time-sharing system has multiple objectives.

“That’s our No. 1 purpose, is to platoon,” said O’Hara, who won a 4A state title with Cathedral in 2006. “No. 1, it’s healthy for kids. No. 2, it wears teams out. No. 3, you get a lot more kids playing football. That’s what we want.”

All-State Honorable Mention wideout Austin Smith (5-8, 140) is also back. Smith, a junior, caught 21 balls in 2013, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch and registering eight receiving touchdowns. Smith would’ve been flanked by Derrik Noel (19 receptions, 14.1 YPC), but the 6-2 senior suffered a meniscus injury in Friday’s scrimmage against Centerville and could be lost for the season.

“We hope he comes back, but it doesn’t look good,” O’Hara said.

Bryce Spegal, a 6-2, 155-pound senior, will start at fullback after averaging over nine yards per carry in limited time last year, while 5-10, 150-pound fourth-year Devon Wagoner replaces Noel at split end. Sophomore Devin Denny (6-0, 165) starts at tight end.

On the line, EH must replace four senior starters, including All-State left tackle Caleb Jessup. The unit’s lone returning starter believes the offensive line will be just fine.

“We’re bigger and stronger,” said senior Kody Smith, the starting right guard. “We’re going to be good once we figure it all out.”

From left tackle to right tackle, EH will start sophomore Jared Boaz (5-9, 205), freshman Mitch Guinn (6-2, 210), junior Grant Friesen (6-0, 230), Smith (5-9, 200) and sophomore Josh Robinson (6-2, 250).

O’Hara doesn’t plan on tinkering too much with the Royals’ prolific offense.

“We have quite a few weapons, so we want to spread it out and use as many people as possible,” he said.

The 2013 Eastern Hancock defense was no slouch either. The Royals ranked seventh in Class A in points allowed (15.8), pitched three shutouts and held opponents to 20 points or less 10 times, despite spending a lot of time on the field because of EH’s quick-strike offense. The Royals were also turnover-creating machines, picking off 23 passes and causing 21 fumbles.

Three starters are back from that unit: nose tackle Adam Campbell, inside linebacker Andy Riley and strong safety Owen Hunt. Two of the bigger losses were at linebacker, with All-State Honorable Mention havoc-causer Hunter Knopp – first on team with 15 QB hurries and 24.5 tackles for loss; second with 8.5 sacks and tied for second with 127 tackles – and fellow senior Kenny Delph (127 tackles) graduating.

“We’ve got a lot of younger kids, but we’re teaching them. They’re athletic and there’s a lot of talent there,” said Riley, a 5-9, 200-pound senior. “We just have to make sure communicate and stay together, the same thing as last year.”

Joining the 5-7, 245-pound Campbell – who had nine tackles for loss and four and a half sacks in 2013 – on the defensive line is junior Dakota Myers (6-1, 170) and sophomore Aaron Riley (5-9, 180).

“The nice thing about our defense is our defensive line is really, really quick,” O’Hara said. “We have three kids there that are really special.”

Joining Andy Riley, who had a county-best 181 tackles last fall, at inside linebacker is senior Cole Allen (5-9, 170). Matt Bowman, a 6-1, 185-pound junior who notched eight and a half tackles for loss last year, is joined at outside linebacker by fellow junior Cole Cochard (5-11, 155).

Junior Caleb Beyers (6-1, 175) is next to the 5-7, 130-pound Hunt at safety. Senior Garret Janes (5-7, 150) and junior Clayton Brumfield (5-10, 140) are the starting corners.

Eastern Hancock’s season opener Friday at home against Northeastern will be one of its toughest games of the regular season. And the Knights, who return a glut of talented skill position players, are surely still steaming from blowing a 36-21 lead in the sectional championship game at home to the Royals last year.

“If we just play smart and minimize mistakes, I don’t think we should have a problem,” Henderson said.

O’Hara’s first game coaching EH – ranked No. 2 in the Class A Associated Press preseason poll – will be the program’s first home tilt since beating 37-16 Linton-Stockton in the Class A South Semistate Nov. 22.

“It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re excited to get to that first game. I think it’ll be a great crowd and a great environment,” O’Hara said. “If you can’t get fired up for that…this is like Christmas morning. Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to tie it up and go after each other.”

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