Trojans fans, get ready to meet a new old friend.
Center Grove is accustomed to battling fellow Metropolitan Interscholastic foes in the IHSAA Class 5A football semistate.
The plot takes an intriguing twist this year, though, as the Trojans prepare for their fourth such contest in the past five years.
A day after their impending membership in the MIC was announced, Lawrence Central and Pike played in the regional championship in a bracket opposite Center Grove.
The top-ranked Bears emerged with a relatively easy 49-21 win and will travel to Center Grove for the semistate tilt at 7 p.m. Friday.
The No. 6 Trojans shook off injuries and won a shootout with a potent Castle passing attack to advance 58-34.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” said senior running back Conner Stapleton, who missed all of last season with an injury, but was a difference-maker against the Knights.
Meeting the Bears is not totally unexpected.
“We scrimmaged against them in the summer,” Stapleton said. “They said then ‘we expect to see you in the semistate.’”
This is the first matchup of the schools since 1990, but the two will meet each other on a regular basis starting in 2014. Lawrence Central and Pike will replace Terre Haute North and South in the MIC.
Although they may be relative strangers on the field, neither team is a stranger to postseason success.
Center Grove has been in four of the last five semistates and seven in all under coach Eric Moore.
The Bears’ program made it to the state title game in 2010 (losing to Fishers) and is 35-4 over the past three seasons under Jayson West.
The Trojans’ win over Castle was a testament to toughness and depth against a Knights’ team that was at least their equal in terms of athletic ability.
The best players don’t win games, the best teams do.
Center Grove provided a vivid illustration of that with a defense that gave up chunks of first-half yardage through the air (301), but not without making Castle receivers pay a price for every catch.
“They came out with a really good passing attack,” junior safety Alex Aukerman said. “They were throwing jump balls and getting them.”
Superb wideout Jon-Marc Anderson burned the Trojans with 12 first-half catches for 147 yards in a game that saw the two teams trade early scoring.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth a little bit,” said Stapleton, adding that the hitting was hard on both sides of the ball.
But with Castle up 27-22 late in the second quarter, Anderson’s 12th catch was his last, after a crunching tackle sent him to the sideline with a shoulder injury.
“We were very physical. That is hard for them to prepare for,” Aukerman said. “When (Anderson) went out, it really changed the game.”
Indeed, the Knights were never the same.
“Everybody knew what was going on, everybody knew we’d lost one of our very best players,” Castle coach Doug Hurt told the Evansville Courier. “But you have to have that philosophy of ‘next man up.’”
Any hope of staying with a prolific Trojan offense that continued to click after halftime was negated when the Knights’ No. 2 and No. 3 receivers and feature back all hobbled off with injuries that cost them significant playing time.
“But by the end of the game, we got beat up pretty good and lost all three receivers,” Hurt said. “We were dropping like flies. Center Grove is a very physical team.”
Chalk that up to playing in a MIC conference where it is “hit or be hit” every Friday.
The Trojans had injury problems of their own.
A depleted running back corps saw leading rusher Alex Lucas go out with an apparent ankle injury on his first carry. Lucas rode to the locker room on a cart and did not return.
But unlike Castle, Center Grove’s depth shone.
Stapleton and junior Lane Morris stepped up their games, each scoring three times and splitting 323 rushing yards.
“When Alex went down early, we just really didn’t know what to do,” said Stapleton, who added that he and Morris were both playing with dings, but realized they could not come off the field. “Other guys were already hurt.”
The Trojans have lost three starting backs for some or all of the season.
The senior said sophomore Zeke Sodrel, who had practiced on the scout team all week, rose to the moment.
“Zeke came in and really stepped up,” Stapleton said. “When we looked at the film, I was really shocked how well he stepped up. He’s player of the game in my book.”
As well, junior quarterback Luke Calvert had his best half of football through the air in the opening frame, throwing for three scores, two to tight end Nate Wozniak.
Without Anderson on the field in the second half, Trojans unleashed more blitzes to frustrate Castle quarterback Mitch Gilles into hurried throws.
After moving the ball at will to start the game, Castle was outscored 36-7 after Anderson went out.
It will take that kind of system approach and on-the-fly adjustments to battle the unbeaten Bears, another system team that effectively plugs players into a game approach that has not failed this season.
Lawrence Central already has beaten MIC teams Lawrence North, North Central (twice) and Warren Central. Perry Meridian and Columbus North also are common opponents with the Trojans.
In recent semistates, Center Grove has faced MIC foes Carmel (2011), Warren Central (2009) and Ben Davis (2008).
This is a Trojan team that has been close to the state title game before, including a stalled red zone drive for the win at Carmel last season, and is ready for more.
“I think our team is more experienced and we’ve got a better shot to win it all,” Aukerman said.
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. He is contributing special football columns throughout the high school playoffs. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.