Guess who’s back? Center Grove football returns to title game

This was supposed to be payback time.

Members of opposing schools were borderline ecstatic that Center Grove’s surge of Division I college talent had finally — finally! — packed its bags and scattered in the direction of assorted campuses.

But when the helmets, uniforms and coaches remain the same, so too do the expectations.

Thus, the Trojans, comprised largely of players who were second- and third-teamers the past two seasons, run onto the Lucas Oil Stadium turf this evening to play undefeated Fort Wayne Carroll for the right to call themselves Class 6A state champions yet again.

It’s the fourth straight title game appearance for Center Grove, and its eighth overall.

And some would say this is the most unlikely group of Trojans to advance this far — with one possible exception.

“The 2000 team was the most surprising because they had never won but one sectional,” said Trojans coach Eric Moore, referring to his sophomore season at the helm. “Then, in 2019, we were 6-4 or something like that (8-5, actually). It was terrible.

“But it would have to probably be one of the surprising ones because you have back-to-back undefeated seasons, and then you lose 18 starters. You’re playing a quarterback you never saw play before, a lot of new guys. And seniors with no experience aren’t seniors.”

One of the seasoned few barely got to play.

A collective sweat hadn’t been broken the night of Aug. 19 when last season’s 1,000-yard back, Drew Wheat, sustained a season-ending lisfranc injury to his foot in a 17-8 Trojans victory.

Forced to reshuffle the deck offensively, coaches inserted senior defensive back Jalen Thomeson, arguably the team’s best athlete, into the backfield, therefore gradually scaling back the impact he could make on defense.

Center Grove eked out a 31-27 victory over Carmel a week later, then lost a two-overtime thriller at Louisville Trinity, 29-28.

The setback, while heartbreaking, grew this squad up quickly.

“Traveling all the way to Kentucky and playing Trinity, a tremendous team. Very physical. A mean, tough, crowd. We made some mistakes, but part of our mistakes in that game were interchanging players because of injury,” Moore said. “I thought that game really matured us in a way that no practice could.”

Center Grove responded with five consecutive victories before losing at home to Cathedral in Week 9. The Trojans squandered a 29-13 lead in the final 9 minutes and 2 seconds to lose to the Irish, 40-29.

Plain and simply, those 48 minutes displayed both the best and worst football this team could muster.

“That was an excellent game. We had that game in control. We learned that you’ve got to keep playing,” Moore said. “It wasn’t like we physically quit. The Cathedral athletes were amazing, and they made great football plays against us.

“But, with that, when you’re sitting up there and you’re telling kids that this team is good, respect them — now you’ve got their attention.”

Senior running back Micah Coyle enters tonight’s game needing 59 yards to reach 2,000 for the season; Thomeson is 46 yards shy of 1,000. Junior quarterback Tyler Cherry has passed for 2,124 yards, 21 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

Another junior, linebacker Owen Bright, leads the defense with 83 tackles. He’s followed by senior safety Gage Rees (72), junior defensive end Elijah Chandler (64) and junior linebacker Kaden McConnell (60). Last season, that quartet had combined for 29 tackles entering the 6A final against Westfield, with Bright responsible for all but two of them.

At Center Grove, the mantra “next man up” carries special significance.

“Our program is so good, we all work so hard and our coaching is elite,” said senior defensive tackle Ryne Roehling, a starter who enjoyed the best game of his career in the 33-10 semistate defeat of Cathedral with 2.5 of his four tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage.

“I think just really getting everybody used to playing together and getting rolling made us a contender. It doesn’t surprise me we’re here.”