BY DEAN HOCKNEY
SHARPSVILLE, Ind. – One year ago, unheralded Tri-Central was trying to figure out how they could get past the road block of Sheridan High School to win a Hoosier Heartland Conference championship. They ended the 2012 regular season with a heartbreaking 22-14 loss to the Blackhawks in Lucas Oil Stadium – the squad’s only defeat of the regular season. Three weeks later, in the sectional championship game, Sheridan nipped them again, 38-28.
The Trojans opened the 2013 campaign with a 47-35 loss to Eastern Hancock. But then a funny thing happened, Tri-Central has not lost a game since. They overcame Sheridan 33-27 to win the conference, knocked them off again 35-7 in the sectionals, and then avenged the Eastern Hancock loss with a 20-10 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium to claim the IHSAA Class 1A state championship – a first for the program.
Now, five years removed from a four-year run of 3-37, the Trojans enter the 2014 season as the unanimous No. 1-ranked team in all of Class 1A while boasting a 14-game win streak. But to head coach George Gilbert, that means there is a big target on the teams back.
“The kids did such an incredible job and it was such a positive thing for our community,” said Gilbert while proudly wearing his blue state championship ring. “But that is all history. We can talk about it 10 years from now. We have a target on us now. Everyone is going to want to play their best game against Tri-Central High School. Six-years ago when we finished that first year, we were ranked No. 57 in Class 1A. This year we are No. 1! That is an honor.”
Tri-Central will have some big shoes to fill, as four Associated Press Class 1A All-State selections were graduated: TC single-season rushing record holder Garrett Kelley (1,756 yards), Seth Blunck, Jade Pickett and Darius Stanley.
“We are excited about this new season and we have the largest squad I have had at Tri-Central,” said Gilbert. “Big holes to fill, but we will get there.”
Returning is all-state pick and Indiana Football Digest cover athlete (Prime Time 25 player) Cody Howell, who completed 91 passes for 1,646 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. He also rushed for 539 yards and 10 scores. The all-state quarterback will throw to Bryce Dowell, who caught six touchdown catches and accounted for 383 yards receiving, and Colten Leininger, who made 16 catches. Cody Colbert (741 yards and four scores) and Dillon Smith (604 yards and nine touchdowns) will run the ball for the Trojans.
“Cody is the only Class 1A guy on it,” said Gilbert of Indiana Football Digest. “He is a team leader and a skilled athlete. He is one of the most humble kids you will meet and has a great work ethic. We are just so proud of Cody. Coming into his senior year, he is a little bigger than last year and has the confidence he needs to lead this football team.”
On defense, Leininger returns his 101 tackles as a safety (second on team) and Howell will try to add to his eight interceptions as a cornerback. They will be joined by linebackers Dowell, Smith, Caleb Duncan (also the team kicker) and Colbert; Cale Hindman at cornerback; and Kaleb Causey at safety.
“We are fast,” said Gilbert. “We are faster than last year, especially defensively. It will be whether our young kids will step up and fill spots.”
It is hard to repeat as a state champion, and Tri-Central knows every opponent will give a 100-percent effort to knock off the top team. But with an all-state signal-caller and several key position players returning, the Trojans may be the team to get the job done in November.