Back To The Gridiron: East, North to face tough tests in season openers

Columbus North quarterback Zac Horn, left, hands off to running back Tyler Blythe during practice at Columbus North High School in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, July 14, 2022.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Even though Columbus North football has won the outright Conference Indiana title the past two years, the Bull Dogs aren‘t satisfied and look to make a bigger leap this year.

Columbus East, meanwhile, will look to bounce back from its first losing season in 20 years and losing its first outright Hoosier Hills Conference title in over 15 years.

Friday Night Lights returns tonight as the Olympians and Bull Dogs face powerhouse teams in Class 5A when East hosts Whiteland in a rematch of last year’s sectional game and North travels to Decatur Central to open the season.

This will be the first matchup between the Bull Dogs and Hawks in a dozen years. The last time the two schools played each other was in 2010. This also will be the debut of new North coach Logan Haston, who takes over for Tim Bless on the headset.

“One of the biggest things is that we don’t want to beat ourselves,” Haston said. “If they’re the better team when the clock hits zero, then that’s fine. We don’t want to walk away feeling like we beat ourselves. We want to make sure they were the better football team. I want to be clean and be sound with everything that we do.”

Columbus East’s Devon Tekulve, left, and Brennan Cowan tackle Bedford North Lawrence’s Memphis Louden Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 at Columbus East.

The Republic file photo

This will be the third matchup in a year for East and Whiteland. The difference for East this year is that the team has a year of experience under their belts.

“They seem pretty hungry,” East coach Eddie Vogel said. “We feel like we‘ve got some tendencies to be able to lock in on. The thing we’re banking on is, we played those guys twice last year. That was the first time a lot of these guys had seen something on Friday nights with that kind of experience.”

Offensively for both teams

It’ll be the same script for the Olympians as they’ll look to run the ball a lot this season. The difference this year is that Vogel wants his team to be more balanced on offense between the run and the pass. The offensive line will have to do its part to make sure the running attack can find the holes, and quarterback Ethan Duncan isn’t under much pressure in or out of the pocket looking for receivers.

“Our offense is a work in progress right now, but I think we’re ahead of schedule of where we were last year,” Vogel said. “Whiteland has a lot of new faces on defense. When we’re playing out there Friday night, there is going to be a lot of guys that didn’t play in that game last year.”

North lost a lot of offense to graduation, led by three-year starting quarterback Luke Hammons. Zac Horn won the job to be the signal caller this season.

“He seems to be calming his nerves pretty well. He’s got a smile on his face and enjoys playing football,” Haston said. “I don’t think he’s too concerned with getting caught up in the hype of the game. He’s loving being around his teammates and playing football right now.”

One big question remains is the health and status of running back Tyler Blythe. He has a fracture in his left hand from playing baseball and missed last week’s scrimmage. Sam Mormino will get the start if Blythe is not cleared to play.

Defensively for both teams

For North, the bright spot is not having Javon Tracy under center for Decatur Central. Tracy, who is set to begin his college career at Miami (Ohio), gave opposing defense headaches last year with his arm and his legs running out of the pocket. Tracy threw for 360 yards, rushed for 1,054 yards and had 203 yards receiving.

Regardless of that huge loss, they’ll still be considered on of the top teams in Class 5A this season. Coming back for the Hawks are top returning back Jordan Cox, who rushed for 214 yards last year. KC Berry and Chris Richmond will be the top wideouts returning, as well. Aycen Stevens should get the majority of snaps under center this year.

“They have an abundance of speed on both sides of the ball,” Haston said. “We got to focus on tackling. If you don’t rally to the football, they can beat you with their speed. We’ve got to rally and tackle the guys. It’s going to take a completely effort to get to the ball.”

For East, they’ll see plenty of familiar faces as last year. Kevin Denham, who threw for 510 yards last year, is back under center for the Warriors. Peyton Emeberton and Gunner Hicks will lead the backfield for Whiteland.

Like No. 2-ranked Decatur Central, No. 6 Whiteland is figured to be one of the top teams in the state in Class 5A.

“Their offense is a challenge,” Vogel said. “They’re awfully good at doing at what they do. It’s a tough Week 1 matchup, especially getting your scout team to be able to simulate what they do. They’re real fundamental and physical. They do a really good job at hiding the football and really with that fly motion put a lot of stress of your defense. I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge.”

Can they win out of conference?

It’s the question that many doubters have. Sure, North and East historically have fared well against its respective conference opponents. Outside of the conference paints a completely different picture.

Looking back at the past three seasons, including the postseason, North had a combined record of 17-12 overall. The Bull Dogs were 12-2 in the conference and 5-10 outside of the conference during that span. East had a combined record of 19-12, going 16-2 in the conference and 3-10 outside of the conference in those same years. Both schools have won outright conference title in two of the three years.

Granted, both teams have played the top tier programs in the state like Center Grove, Cathedral, Roncalli and Bishop Chatard. The problem was, last year especially, those top tier teams would seal up the game by halftime.

Haston and Vogel hope that all changes this year, especially if they want to be taken seriously by outsiders among the conversation about the top football teams in the state.

“First and foremost, Conference Indiana is competitive, and we’ve got to come ready to play in each of those games, and it’s not anything we take for granted,” Haston said. “We’re trying to challenge ourselves and give us a tough strength of schedule. We want to prepare and build for the playoffs. We know our sectional is really competitive. We’re doing the right things, and scheduling difficult competition to prepare us. We know each week is a challenge, and our guys embrace that. They get excited to play the really good teams. They’re pumped. They know Decatur Central is going to be a very high-quality opponent, and our guys have embraced that challenge.”

Vogel, who was previously the defensive coordinator under then-head coach Bob Gaddis, mentioned getting that statement win against Cathedral in 2017 after losing so many times to the Fighting Irish in the postseason the past two decades. They easily won that game 42-13 to shock many people, and they won the 5A state title a week later.

“I’ve been here a really long time. We’ve had some really good football teams over the years and had a lot of great players, and I’ve been blessed with that. We’ve heard that chatter a lot. We’ve had really good teams and then get beat by Cathedral. We finally got over that hump,” Vogel said. “We’re not really worried about what everyone else says. It’s been that way since I’ve been here the last 20 years. The only ones that matter and have to believe are the people that come out here and practice every day. People are going to say what they say. There’s always going to be critics out there. We’re going to play whoever lines up against us on our schedule, and our job is to prepare the best we can in front of us and that’s what we do.”

With his team not having much varsity experience last year, Vogel hopes this year that the experience, maturity and opposition they faced last year will help them to a leap forward this year.

“With having new guys (last year), it wasn’t much the physical part but more the mental part. Even though we ended our season with a loss, we were on a roll there at the end of the season when the light bulb started to come on,” Vogel said. “We had great practices last week prior to the scrimmage. We came out and competed really well. I think we’re where we need to be, and we’re a work in progress and we have to keep getting better.”

Haston mentioned that turnovers and special teams play a part, especially in Week 1, in whether a team wins or loses.

“I want to see our guys compete, and I want to see them give a great effort,” Haston said. “It’s time to get under the lights and see what these guys can do.”