Battle Tested / Bull Dogs hope rigorous schedule has them better prepared for top-ranked Trojans

Columbus North and Class 6A No. 1 Center Grove will go into Friday night’s sectional final with many of the same players who were involved in last year’s 42-7 Trojans victory.

The difference, Bull Dogs coach Tim Bless says, is that this year’s North team is better prepared to take on the Center Grove juggernaut, which is undefeated and ranked No. 7 in the nation by USA Today and No. 8 by MaxPreps.

That’s because North has played a Gibson Southern team that is ranked No. 2 in Class 3A, along with 4A No. 1 Roncalli and 5A No. 1 Cathedral, which was ranked nationally prior to its loss to Center Grove in the regular-season finale. The Bull Dogs also beat a Bloomington South team that was ranked No. 3 in 5A at the time.

“What this team has the advantage over the 2020 team is the schedule that we’ve played,” Bless said. “We have seen some tremendous football teams and some tremendous individual football players that the 2020 team didn’t see that level of. Does that give us hopefully a level of preparation for this game that the 2020 team didn’t have? Most certainly.”

The Trojans (10-0) are led by senior defensive lineman Caden Curry, who has offers from several top college programs, including Alabama and Ohio State. Senior quarterback Tayven Jackson, a Tennessee commit, leads the offense.

Jackson has completed 90 of 138 passes for 1,384 yards and 19 touchdowns. Junior Drew Wheat has carried 107 times for 900 yards and 11 scores, and senior Harrison Stomps has 24 catches for 294 yards and two touchdowns.

Curry has 45 tackles, including 16 for losses.

“You watch film, and you’re very impressed by everything they do,” Bless said. “They’re fundamental, they’re physical, they have great schemes in all three phases of the game. They lost an incredibly talented running back from last year, but they have new guys that can flat get it done. A lot of their guys are their same kids from last year that are older, bigger, stronger, faster, but we’re in that same boat in a lot of spots as well.”

North senior Luke Hammons has completed 92 of 142 passes for 1,195 yards and 18 touchdowns and carried 97 times for 465 yards and nine scores. Senior Dyllan Redmon has 129 carries for 735 yards and six touchdowns, and senior Keegan Castetter has 35 catches for 556 yards and seven scores.

Senior linebacker Connor Essick has 75 tackles, and senior defensive end Dawson Adams has 21 tackles for losses for the Bull Dogs (6-3). Senior defensive back Jaxson Scruggs has two interceptions and ranks among the state’s leaders in kickoff/punt return yardage.

“After playing them last year, I’m prepared,” Hammons said. “They play faster, more physical than any team we’ll ever play. Expect the unexpected. They’ll throw things at you. They’ll just use their pure athleticism to beat you, and we have to be prepared for that and have a game plan to counter that.”

The Bull Dogs have had three weeks to prepare for the Trojans after all of Class 6A was off the first week of the sectional, and North had a bye in its three-team sectional last week. Those were uncharted waters for Bless and the Bull Dogs.

“It’s been a challenge because we’re wired to play football every Friday,” Bless said. “These kids want to play, and our coaches want to coach. Then walking that balance, you don’t want to kill your kids for three straight weeks in practice, but you also have to, what we say in our program, ‘Keep the sword sharp,’ and the only way to keep the sword sharp is to play football and stay game ready.”

Bless put the team through a simulated game of tackle football, offense vs. defense, on Oct. 28.

“They were spirited,” Bless said. “They were definitely competitive.”

Beginning with Gibson Southern quarterback and Purdue recruit Brady Allen in the season opener, North has faced its share of talented players this season.

“We’ve seen it all,” Hammons said. “We’ve seen a great defense from Cathedral, one of the best O-lines in the midwest from Roncalli and we’ve seen Peyton Manning (Allen) throw the ball around, so there’s nothing we haven’t seen. I think everything we’re going to see Friday, we’ve seen before.”

For the Bull Dogs, it’s a matter of not letting things snowball out of control when a play or two doesn’t go their way.

“I think everyone just needs to do their job and not try to do too much, not give up,” Hammons said. “They’re going to make plays. It’s how we’re going to respond to their plays that’s how the outcome of the game is going to turn out.”