BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Touchdown passes, interceptions, hard hits, long runs, popcorn, hot dogs, ice cold Coca-Cola and hot chocolate. Yep, it’s time for football to kick off on striped fields across the state – and the local area is no exception.
Excitement is in the air around Howard County and the surrounding area, and rightfully so. Last year, the Kokomo Wildkats advanced to the IHSAA Class 5A Final Four and the Taylor Titans turned its program around with a four-win season. Meanwhile, young coaches at Western and Northwestern now have their programs firmly in place and Eastern is set for its second season in a new conference.
The most excitement revolves around the Wildkats, fresh off the programs second sectional title (first since 1985) and first-ever regional championship in a 12-1, North Central Conference championship campaign. With Kyle Wade returning at quarterback – now a veteran third-year junior starter – Kokomo has high expectations despite key graduation losses. But head coach Brett Colby (73-23, 10th year at Kokomo) understands that was last year – and 2016 is a new season.
“We had the talk that there is no entitlement,” said Colby. “Last year is last year. We want them to win something new for themselves. But it has been a rough start with some injuries.”
While not going into details, Colby said his offense has changed slightly. Wade returns after throwing for 1,419 yards a year ago – the most since Kevin Lechner’s 1,466 in 1981.
“We are still going to do the same stuff in the shotgun – we are still doing the double-wing,” said Colby. “Kyle is going to be a big run-threat for us. Hopefully, that will catch them off-guard. And we are going to focus on some of the old stuff. We have to focus on our own identity this year.”
EASTERN: Josh Edwards (27-64) returns for his 10th season at Eastern and will look for his second winning season – and this time, the Comets are looking for the defense to lead the way.
“We put a lot of emphasis on defense this summer,” said assistant coach Craig Standish. “Defense wins championships. Fans don’t necessarily want to see a grind-it-out football game, but our defense is vastly improved. Defense was the highlight of our scrimmage.”
Scott Mullinex, the Comets quarterback and defensive end, will lead the way after recently committing to play NCAA Division I football for the Sycamores of Indiana State.
“He is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds,” said Standish. “He is a load. He throws the ball well and runs the ball well. Indiana State wants him to play middle linebacker – we are proud of him.”
NORTHWESTERN: Alex Stewart (4-6) is back for his second year at Northwestern, and he has high expectations for the new season.
“Our kids had a phenomenal off-season and really bought into the weight program,” said Stewart. “
Stewart said the offense will fall onto the shoulders of fourth-year starter Trey Richmond. The senior had a 532-yard passing game in the sectional last year.
“Trey had a really good year as a junior despite being hampered by a hamstring injury,” said the coach. “You really saw the real Trey Richmond in the second half of the season. He is growing up and becoming a leader. He is doing things he would not have done last year.”
TAYLOR: The Taylor Titans entered the 2015 campaign on a 36-game losing streak, and things from the outside looked bleak after two losses to start the season. But head coach Dennis Bentzler (4-17, third year) saw things differently, and a 27-8 win over Frontier not only snapped the streak, it led to the Titans going 4-5 over the rest of the season. But to keep the momentum going, Taylor will have to overcome losing 15 players to graduation.
“That is huge for a program our size,” said Bentzler. “But I am proud of where we are. The program is going in a positive direction.”
The veteran coach, Bentzler retired after 23 years of helming the girls basketball program, said the younger kids will need to step up this season.
“We can run our wide-open spread offense this year,” said Bentzler. “We don’t have any outstanding players, but it is about team – these kids love to play.”
TIPTON: Aaron Tolle returns for his 12th year at Tipton (81-47), and he is as excited this year as in years past – especially coming off a pair of sub-par seasons by Blue Devil standards.
“We feel good about where we are,” said the veteran coach. “We have some good kids in our program and it is fun to work with them every day. We are excited to see if we can get this thing back rolling again.”
Kellen Woods returns to the quarterback position for the third consecutive season.
“He is going to run the show; we tuned the keys over to him long ago,” said Tolle. “He is a great kid and his parents should be very proud – and he is a straight-A student. He is not the biggest guy in the world, but he gets it done as a quarterback and defensive back. He gives us a weapon.”
TRI-CENTRAL: Once the doormat, the Tri-Central Trojans under coach George Gilbert (53-27, eighth year) are now the one with a target on its back. The Trojans won the Class 1A state title in 2013 and the program has four consecutive double-digit win seasons – including an undefeated regular season last campaign.
“We are ready to get it started,” said Gilbert. “We have a big senior class, although we did lose our entire backfield from last year. But this year, we will have some exciting running backs. We use the cliché, “next guy up.”
Gilbert said he is also excited that the group that started practices is still coming back, despite the grind.
“We started with 36 and we still have 36,” he said. “Their focus and attitude has been good; now, we need to develop our concept of, ‘team of one.’ We want them to develop a chemistry together, just like a family. But we have great senior leadership and I think we will be fine.”
WESTERN: Third year head coach Ron Jankovich (5-16) said the program is headed in the right direction and he is excited about what is to come.
“I feel comfortable with the staff and I think the players understand what I expect,” he said. “I think everyone is starting to buy-in and are staying the course. It is starting to show a little and we are on the right path.”
Jankovich said he will rely on returning quarterback Tyler Knepley as the key to the offense.
“And we want to control the middle – control the run game,” said Jankovich. “We had 16 freshman and sophomores play and start last year. Now they are juniors and they are starting to develop. They are starting to understand the schemes. We have some young guys, but they are battle tested.”
The high school football season begins this Friday with only one Howard County squad playing at home as Taylor will host North White at 7 p.m. Other local games include Kokomo at Chesterton (8 p.m.), Northwestern at Clinton Central (7 p.m.), Western at Frankfort (7 p.m.) and Eastern at Oak Hill (7 p.m.).
Returning to its traditional 9 a.m. slot on the radio dial is the Saturday Morning Breakfast Coaches Show with host Chris Lowry. This year, the seven varsity football coaches from Howard and Tipton County’s will break down their games from the previous evening live on ESPN 1350 AM WIOU.