It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving and the Center Grove Trojans are playing football.
If it feels like a November rite of passage, it’s because the Trojans are in the semi state for the fifth consecutive year and the 13th time in the last 15 years.
At 10-2 and ranked No. 3 in Class 6A, the Trojans face a rematch with No. 2 Cathedral (10-1) at Longshore Stadium at Arsenal Tech High School in Indianapolis, with a trip to the State Finals on the line.
It’s a rematch of teams who are both seeking their third straight state championship – CG won the last two years in Class 6A, Cathedral in 5A.
Center Grove has used a powerful offense, which is scoring 35.9 ppg, to advance to the semi state. After a narrow 14-10 win over Franklin Central in the sectional opener, the Trojans dispatched Columbus North 49-14 and Warren Central 42-32. Running back Micah Coyle ran for 301 yards and four TDs in last week’s regional victory.
That has complemented a passing game led by quarterback Tyler Cherry, who has thrown for 2,081 yards this season. Knowing they had Noah Coy – who has 1,060 receiving yards and 13 TDs on 56 catches – and solid slots Eli Hohlt and Owen Wright – returning, the Trojans expected to have a strong passing game. Moving Jalen Thomeson over to running back to complement Coyle has given the team a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield, as Coyle has 1,723 yards and Thomeson 869. Both are averaging more than six yards per carry.
“Well, we sort of had to adapt to that system of playing and it has helped us win games,” CG coach Eric Moore said. “We lost our great RB Drew Wheat 8 plays into the 2022 season vs WC and had to totally change our plan of attack. We practice and work on the passing game more than people understand, in fact most people that watch us practice don’t understand why and how we practice passing this much. This year with the loss of Drew, we have used the pass to set up the run.”
With playmakers in the passing and running games, CG is averaging 420 yards per game.
“With that we have compromised most defenses making them pick the poison, stop pass or slow down the run,” Moore said.
Cathedral is no stranger to success, having won big at the Class 5A level before moving up to 6A due to the Tournament Success Factor. They’re seeking their 15th state championship and 18th State Finals appearance.
The Irish is led by one of the state’s top passers in junior Danny O’Neil. A multi-year starter, he has thrown for 2,579 yards and 32 touchdowns, with Jaron Tibbs (895 yards), David Ayers (640 yards) and Brennan Wooten (484 yards) his top targets. Add running back Carson Johnson, who needs 10 yards to eclipse 1,000 for the season, and Cathedral is one of 6A’s top-scoring teams at 37 ppg.
But Cathedral had to grind out a 14-7 victory over Brownsburg last week in the regional – avenging a regular season loss from Week 2. O’Neil threw for 168 yards and a touchdown to Ayers, who had 93 receiving yards. Cathedral downed Lawrence North 44-35 and Lawrence Central 33-13 in the sectional to get to the regional.
The Trojans and Irish are meeting in the state tournament for the first time, but they are no strangers to each other. They’ve met in Week 9 annually since 2014. This year, Cathedral rallied to win 40-29 after trailing 29-13 going into the final quarter. O’Neil threw for 410 yards – 164 to Tibbs and 162 to Wooten – and five TDs in that contest. Cherry threw for 202 yards – 125 to Coy.
“The Rematch? We’re not really thinking of it in those terms,” Moore said. “This is the game both teams must win to obtain their goal to be in the state championship. It just happens to be between two teams that play in the regular season. Yes, it is a chance to regain our self-esteem we lost after such a break down late in the last game. For that we have worked on things that caused problems from the CG standpoint, not merely what Cathedral did to hurt us or beat us.”
Lawrenceburg facing surprising Bulldogs
Four weeks ago, the Monrovia Bulldogs were 2-7 and entering one of the state’s toughest sectionals.
The Bulldogs are now just one win away from the State Finals, but they travel to face a 12-1 Lawrenceburg squad that has won 12 consecutive games.
Monrovia dispatched previously unbeaten Owen Valley 26-21 last week after wins over Purdue Poly, Speedway and Danville in the sectional.
“Monrovia is very hot right now,” Lawrenceburg coach Ryan Knigga said. “They have found a way to win games in the tournament. They have beat some good football programs on this run and are playing really well. You better be ready to stop the run. They want to run the football. Your backend guys can’t fall asleep, or they will play-action you and hit the deep ball. You need to make every possession count.”
Monrovia’s run-heavy attack is led by junior Brayton Belcher, who has 1,035 yards and 11 touchdowns. Dustin Kostrzewski adds 797 yards and Jozy Hand 517 on the ground. Hand led the running game with 90 yards and a touchdown last week at OV.
While the Bulldogs’ record showed struggles, they played stiff competition – three of their regular-season losses were to teams ranked in the top five of their respective classes, and two foes – Linton and Indianapolis Lutheran – are still alive.
Lawrenceburg is in the semi state for the second consecutive year. The Tigers have one of the state’s top defenses, having allowed just three touchdowns since the tournament began, and that came after closing the regular season with six consecutive shutouts. The Tigers’ lone loss came to county rival East Central – a Class 4A regional champion – in the opening week.
“Our defense has been outstanding,” Knigga said. “That unit has gotten better each week. They fly around to the ball and make plays. They are fun to watch. We knew our defense had a chance to be good as we brought seven guys back from that regional team last year. Going into the season we knew they would need to carry us. They have done just that. I think it starts with our seniors. They have been great leaders. It is a player-led locker room. They handle all the business and take care of things. To have a defense like we have, it is not one person or two. To do what they have done takes multiple guys. We feel we have multiple guys who are performing well on that side of the ball and contributing to our success.”
Among those are senior Joey Pierce, who has 106 tackles, 10 for loss, and four interceptions. Sophomore Noah Knigga has 13 tackles for loss. Junior Zavyn Slayback also has four picks for a team that has forced 32 turnovers.
Offensively, the Tigers feature two 1,000-yard rushers in junior Teagan Bennett and senior Alex Witte. They have combined for 32 touchdowns.
Last week, Witte ran for 252 yards and Bennett 148 as the Tigers combined for 400 yards on the ground to down a solid Southridge squad 31-7 in the regional.
“It was a battle,” Knigga said. “Southridge is a very good team. They are coached well and execute very well. It was a huge win for our program. We have been in that game the past few years and it was a bump in the road for us, so it felt great to get over that bump. I am very proud of our kids. They were resilient and just battled for four quarters. I thought all our players performed well. You’ve got to perform well to win that game
“Overall, it was a great team win and I am proud of our kids and coaches.”
Unbeatens meet up
Two games feature unbeaten teams – one in Class 6A, one in Class A. In 6A, Carroll (Fort Wayne) hosts Hamilton Southeastern. HSE is ranked No. 1 in the class and is looking to make its first State Finals appearance in 17 years. Carroll has never been in the State Finals, but advanced by winning a 21-20 matchup with Lafayette Jeff last week. … In Class A, defending state champion Indianapolis Lutheran visits North Decatur. That contest features the state’s leading passer in Lutheran’s Jackson Willis (3,670 yards) against a North Decatur defense that is allowing 6.8 ppg. ND won its first regional in school history last week. … Also in Class A’s northern bracket, unbeaten Adams Central meets 12-1 North Judson, putting the top four teams in the polls in the semi state, with a combined record of 51-1 between them. … A big rematch takes place in Class 4A, where Roncalli and East Central played to a 21-19 game in Week 9, which was won by the Royals. The two teams meet again at EC’s field, where the host Trojans are looking to make their first State Finals appearance since 2017. Roncalli is looking to return for the second time in three seasons after Luke Hansen ran for 195 yards in a 20-7 victory over No. 1 New Palestine last week. … Class 3A features an intriguing matchup as No. 1 West Lafayette puts its 13-0 record on the line at No. 3 Indianapolis Chatard. Both schools have recent state titles – WL in 2017, Chatard in 2020. … A couple of Region-Summit matchups take place between traditional powers, as Valparaiso visits Fort Wayne Snider in 5A. Valpo avenged a loss to Merrillville last week with a 15-14 regional victory. No. 1 Snider, seeking its first State Finals appearance since 2015, defeated Mishawaka 41-27 last week. In 2A, defending state champ Andrean hosts Fort Wayne Luers. Alongside Monrovia, Luers is the other team with a sub-.500 regular season record to advance to the semi state. The Knights went 4-5 before rolling through Prairie Heights, Churubusco, Eastside and Bluffton, with the 35-21 victory over Eastside in the sectional final the closest contest. … In addition to North Decatur and Carroll (Fort Wayne), Whiteland will also be seeking its first-ever State Finals appearance in Class 5A this week.
No. 1 Hamilton Southeastern (12-0) at No. 5 Carroll (Fort Wayne) (12-0)
No. 3 Center Grove (10-2) at No. 2 Indianapolis Cathedral (10-1) (at Tech HS)
No. 9 Valparaiso (9-3) at No. 1 Fort Wayne Snider (11-1)
No. 2 Whiteland (11-1) at Castle (8-4)
No. 7 New Prairie (12-1) at No. 6 Kokomo (12-1)
No. 2 Roncalli (12-1) at No. 4 East Central (11-2)
No. 3 Indianapolis Chatard (9-4) at No. 1 West Lafayette (13-0)
Monrovia (6-7) at No. 5 Lawrenceburg (12-1)
No. 8 Fort Wayne Luers (8-5) at No. 3 Andrean (9-3)
No. 1 Linton (13-0) at No. 5 Ev. Mater Dei (10-3)
No. 2 Adams Central (13-0) at No. 4 North Judson (12-1)
No. 1 Indianapolis Lutheran (13-0) at No. 3 North Decatur (13-0)