CENTERBURG – After a disappointing 2017 season, Centerburg took a step up last year. The Trojans improved by three wins, going 5-5 and placing fifth in the KMAC.
But there was a clear divide between the teams Centerburg beat and the teams it didn’t. Centerburg’s five wins came against opponents with a combined record of 8-42. Its losses, meanwhile, came against playoff-bound Lucas and the KMAC’s top four teams. When facing the upper half of their schedule, the Trojans were outscored by an average of 33 points per game.
If Centerburg is to improve again this year, and potentially break into the KMAC’s upper echelon, it will need to beat the elite.
“Our goal is to take it one day at a time and to get better every day. We’ve been really focusing on ourselves,” head coach Andy Colella said. “And when those games come, hopefully we’ve worked hard enough and prepared ourselves hard enough that when we get to those points, that we can make it competitive and get to some of the things that we ultimately want to do.”
The Trojans certainly have experience on their side. They welcome back nine starters on each side of the ball, including six all-KMAC honorees from a year ago.
Quarterback John Sheasby will return for his junior season after leading the team in passing and rushing as a sophomore. Sheasby threw for 476 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions last fall. He ran for 810 yards and seven touchdowns, using his speed to escape the pocket and pick up first downs.
Sheasby will have an experienced line protecting him this year. Four of the Trojans’ starters from last season are back, including all-KMAC selections Hayden Hankinson, Andrew Waddell and Garrett Campos.
Senior Donnell Marshall will provide quickness for the Trojans on the outside; despite battling injuries last year, he managed to muster 352 rushing yards, good for second on the team. Sheasby’s second option at receiver from a year ago, John Wharton, will be back for his junior season. Defensively, the Trojans will return seven of their top eight tacklers from a year ago.
Still, the Trojans lost several key pieces to graduation this offseason. Stephen Schmitt and Michael Kuhn, two players who provided crucial leadership on last year’s team, are now playing at Otterbein College.
Schmitt started at wide receiver and linebacker, and he led the team in catches (22) and receiving yards (209) last season by a wide margin. He also led the team in tackles (79.5) and tackles for loss (10.5). While Kuhn’s senior year was marred by injuries, he still managed to score three touchdowns and record 15 tackles.
All-KMAC lineman Gabe Dickerson and receiver Joel Rings also graduated this offseason. Dickerson registered 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year, while Rings ranked third on the team with seven receptions.
“We’re going to miss Steve-O and Gabe and Joel and a couple of those guys,” Colella said, “but there’s some guys with plenty of experience that are coming back, and hopefully we can use that momentum and that experience to kind of carry us through here.”
When Centerburg faced big-name opponents last season, the offense seemed to stall. The Trojans scored a combined 13 points in their four conference losses, and they were shut out twice. Despite going .500 last year, Centerburg scored just 15 points per game.
Colella said the coaching staff reevaluated its offensive approach after last season’s shortfall. This year’s team will focus on being “more than one-dimensional,” he said, with the goal of spreading teams out and getting more playmakers involved.
“You have a quarterback that has a little more experience and is a little bit older, and you have guys on the outside that can make plays, and you have guys who can run, and then ultimately guys up front who can block for him,” Colella said. “That helps out tremendously.”
The Trojans intend to spread the field horizontally, Colella added, which will free up the middle of the field for ball carriers.
Centerburg’s skill and experience will be put to the test this season, as the KMAC appears to be competitive once again. East Knox and Northmor return most of their starters, and Highland seems apt to reload after winning last year’s conference title. Danville, despite its inexperience, could develop into a contender by the end of the season.
For Centerburg, the path back to conference title (and playoff) contention is a marathon, not a sprint. Hankinson would know; when he was a freshman, he played varsity snaps on the team that went 8-3 and made the playoffs.
“One week at a time,” Hankinson said of the team’s approach. “Every week, we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s just 1-0 every week.”