After ascending from 0-10 in 2010 to 3-7 in 2011, the Central Columbia football team is preparing to take the next step.
The Blue Jays, who return 15 starters and a number of other contributors from a season ago, are looking for their first postseason appearance since 2004. Third year coach Jason Hippenstiel, in his second stint leading the Central Columbia program, knows the kind of day-to-day commitment necessary to reach new heights.
“The old coachspeak is ‘we’ll take one game at a time,’” Hippenstiel said. “Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of talent on this team. We’ve had three years for these guys to understand the system. There’s no doubt expectations are much higher as we go into this season. Most people would think expectations are wins and losses. It’s more than that for me. It’s expectations that practices go perfectly. No screwing around, that the kids are ready to play every day at practice because that’s where we win football games.”
One of the reasons for optimism within the Blue Jays program is stability at quarterback. Senior Jordan Thivierge took over the starting job last season and showed flashes of potential, including throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns against eventual District IV AA champion Mount Carmel. Hippenstiel believes Thivierge’s command of the offensive system is now catching up to his physical tools.
“His confidence level is through the roof right now,” Hippenstiel said. “He just has the knack, but learning the offense was the big thing.”
Sophomores Austin Farver and Steve Shannon will provide depth. In the backfield, senior Aaron Johnson and junior Dain Kowalski will each see time at running back. Senior fullback Eric McCracken returns and will be backed up by junior Cody Bowman and sophomore Frankie Tewell.
On the perimeter, the Blue Jays will feature three seniors all with experience. Dylan Hine led the team in 2011 with 24 receptions while Adam Novak paced the Blue Jays with three touchdown receptions. Jarrod Flick chipped in with seven catches. Senior Jesse Shannon and Farver will also see time at wide receiver.
Senior Nate Hughes returns at tight end. Newcomer Garratt Barratt, a 6’6” senior, and senior Garrett Sanders will also see time.
The offensive line brings back all five starters. Juniors Nick Rakauskas, at left tackle, Jake Klinger, at left guard and Tyler Young, at center, along with seniors Alex Shiber, at right guard, and Jace Parcell, at right tackle, are all back. With the development of junior Payton Aucker, Hippenstiel believes players will rotate in and out at a number of positions along the line to keep the group fresh.
Hippenstiel praised the offseason work of his team, noting the strength gains made by his linemen. The Blue Jays coach also said hard work up and down the roster has made this group a faster one, a change that will be apparent on the defensive side of the ball.
“We should have three guys at the point of attack instead of one, having to make that saving tackle,” Hippenstiel said. “We should have three guys there to make the play and that changes the game.”
Starting at the defensive ends in Central Columbia’s 4-4 alignment will be Shiber and Hughes. Klinger and Parcell will be the defensive tackles.
McCracken, a first-team all-conference pick in 2011, is back at inside linebacker. He will be joined by a mix of Bowman, Kowalski, Sanders and junior Austin Young. Hine returns at outside linebacker and the competition to fill the spot vacated by the graduated Andrew Hess is a four-player battle. Johnson, seniors Jeremy Ball and Tyler Johnson and sophomore Danny Koch are all getting a look.
Novak, a Heartland conference first-team selection a year ago, Flick and Jesse Shannon will man the cornerback position. Junior Luke Reichart has the inside track to start at safety.
Stability on special teams will be provided by Hine as the punter and kicker and from Flick in the return game.
Winning the special teams aspect of the game was one of the keys highlighted by Hippenstiel. While the coach is happy with the physical gains made by his players in the offseason, Hippenstiel sees the mental leap from 3-7 to a playoff contender as just as critical.
“This group needs to understand that nothing is given to them,” Hippenstiel said. “I would be surprised if they didn’t understand it, but I’m going to hammer it home.”
If the message hits home, Hippenstiel believes this team could accomplish even more than just earning a playoff berth.
“The sky’s the limit with this group,” Hippenstiel said. “Obviously, from the outside looking in, a lot of people say, if we made it to the playoffs, that’d be miraculous, just because of what we’ve been through. But I’m not sure this group’s thinking that. I don’t think they’re happy if we’re not in the title contention of some sort, whether it be league, district, state. I really think this group has plans to go further.”
Central Columbia begins their 2012 schedule at 7 p.m., Friday, August 31, at home against Hughesville.