Getting to the top is hard enough. Staying there is much, much tougher.
That’s the task awaiting the Center Grove football team in 2016 — producing an encore after a perfect 14-0 season that was capped by a victory in the Class 6A state championship game.
Despite losing some horses on defense — including tackles Jovan Swann and Cameron Tidd, who are now at Stanford and Vanderbilt, respectively — the Trojans have enough talent to make a run at a repeat. But winning titles, particularly back to back, takes more than just talent.
Going undefeated, especially against the gauntlet that is Center Grove’s schedule, takes good health and good luck. Even the best teams are prone to a stumble somewhere.
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“It’s just hard to talk about this year from last year,” Trojans head coach Eric Moore said, “because if you say anything less than undefeated state champion, parents and people think, ‘Well, you don’t care as much.’ Yeah, we do. But the reality — who’s done it?”
Not very many. No football team has won consecutive state championships in Indiana’s largest class since Warren Central completed its record run of four straight 5A crowns in 2006.
Even if Center Grove does turn that trick, the odds of winning 14 in a row again to do it are even longer. No large-school program has put together back-to-back perfect seasons since Jeff George quarterbacked Warren Central to the mountaintop in 1984 and 1985.
Having done it once, Moore knows exactly how difficult it is.
“I ain’t going to lie; it’s not easy,” he stated. “It’s tough getting the community and the families and parents to believe that — ‘Well, you won 14 straight last year, you can do it again.’ And you can, but things have got to go your way, and the ball’s got to go your way.”
Knowing that, the Trojans aren’t fixated on running the table. Their own expectations remain high, but while they’re appreciative of the community’s support, they’re trying not to pay attention to anyone else’s idea of what the season should bring.
“For sure, there’s hype and expectations,” senior running back Titus McCoy said, “but with ourselves, we know our expectations and we know what we’re going to do, and we’ve just got to go out and execute. We feel we’re the best coached (team) in the state, and now we’ve just got to execute the game plans.”
“Obviously, the community’s going to be around us wanting to get another one, and we’re all wanting to get another one,” senior offensive lineman Clay Hadley added, “but the real focus is coming together as a team and being ready for Warren Central in Game 1.”
Anything after that, at least for now, is irrelevant. Center Grove will focus on what it can control — consistent improvement from game to game — and let the chips fall where they may.
Perhaps that means a return trip to Lucas Oil Stadium and another big trophy. Perhaps it doesn’t.
For now, Moore is just focusing on the journey there.
“Every week, you’ve got to get better as a team, or none of it’s going to happen,” he said. “If we just get better every week, whatever happens is okay. We can deal with whatever happens.”
Center Grove Trojans
Coach: Eric Moore
Last year: 14-0, beat Penn 28-16 to win Class 6A state championship
Who’s back: Offense — Jake Kellams, senior QB; Titus McCoy, senior RB; Trevor Hohlt, senior RB; Triston Clark, senior RB; Tyler Boyer, senior WR; Trent Line, senior WR; P.J. Buck, sophomore WR/P; Lucas Doyle, sophomore TE; Clay Hadley, senior OT; Tyler Olston, senior OG; Bailey Smith, senior C; Nick Davis, senior OG; Dylan Bramlett, senior OT. Defense — Dan Root, senior DE; Parker Ferguson, senior DT; Seth Ferrando, senior DT; Brad Boswell, junior DE; Bailey Bennett, senior LB; Nick Arbuckle, senior LB; Sam Bolin, senior LB; Brett Boswell, junior CB; Tyler Watson, junior CB; Logan Bontrager, senior S; Corbin Lague, senior S.
New kids on the block: Russ Yeast, senior WR/RB; Luke Eckert, sophomore K
Outlook: No team has put up consecutive unbeaten seasons in Indiana’s largest class since Warren Central in 1984-85, so the Trojans are facing nearly impossible expectations. This roster, however, might be up to the task. An already explosive offense got a boost with the arrival of Yeast, who has scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama and Auburn. Root will be one of the leaders on a defense looking to make up for the graduation losses of Jovan Swann (now at Stanford) and Cameron Tidd (Vanderbilt). The schedule is daunting as always, but even if there is a bump in the road somewhere, Center Grove should again contend for the 6A state crown.
Moore says: “We’re going to be so down on defense, we’re like, ‘Let’s make our offense spectacular and make people try to outscore us for a while.'”
First & 10 with … Bailey Bennett, Center Grove senior linebacker
1. What would you consider your team’s greatest strength going into this season?
I’d say definitely our offense. We’ve got a lot of threats, like our backs; our running backs are really good.
2. What’s something you feel that the team still needs to improve upon?
Honestly, our special teams isn’t as good as last year’s, so improve on that and we’ll be good.
3. “One game at a time” clichés aside, which game on your schedule are you looking forward to the most?
I think our whole team’s looking forward to playing Cathedral again, because they’re ranked better than us and we can’t wait to prove them wrong.
4. If you could pick a theme song for the 2016 Trojans, what would it be?
That’s a tough one. Honestly, I have no idea.
5. What’s the most critical part of your pregame routine? Any particular superstitions?
I always use the restroom right before we go out.
6. What is your least favorite football team, pro, college or otherwise? How come?
Probably the New York Giants, because I’m a Patriots fan.
7. If you could sit down for dinner with one athlete, who would it be?
Probably (Patriots tight end) Rob Gronkowski.
8. What’s the biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s team?
Being a senior, it’s a lot different, just because it’s your team instead of being a junior having to play for the seniors.
9. Center Grove fans will be proud of this team because …
The way we play. I think we’re going to play as hard as we possibly can, and I think everyone’s going to be able to see that.
10. If you could write the script for the 2016 season, how would it end?
I’d say it’s going to end with a state championship.
Center Grove Trojans
2016 football schedule
Friday;Warren Central;7 p.m.
Aug. 26;at Whiteland;7 p.m.
Sept. 2;Carmel;7 p.m.
Sept. 9;at Ben Davis;7 p.m.
Sept. 16;North Central;7 p.m.
Sept. 23;Lawrence Central;7 p.m.
Sept. 30;at Pike;7 p.m.
Oct. 7;at Lawrence North;7 p.m.
Oct. 14;Cathedral;7 p.m.