TRAVERSE CITY – After winning its first outright Big North Conference title, and giving Midland a tussle in the Division 2 district finals, can Traverse City Central repeat this fall?
It’s a different team, with a different make-up, but the Trojans are hoping for similar results.
“We talk about the pride that last year’s season put back into Trojan football,” coach Tom Passinault said. “We haven’t specifically used the word repeat. But one year does not make a program. If we want to be a program that others talk about, then to follow with a second consecutive year like that would be impressive.”
The Trojans finished 9-2, 6-0 in the Big North. They were led by a talented senior class that included dual-threat quarterback T.J. Schepperly, speedster T.J. Schwannecke, fullback-linebacker Nate Pupel, receiver Drew Reamer, bookend tackles Tyler Gildersleeve and Mitchell Brien and two-way lineman Ken Merrica.
That’s a lot to replace.
The Trojans, though, are eager for the challenge.
“The mindset is different,” said Charlie Long, one of three captains. “Last year we knew we could sit back and let the seniors take control. Now, we have to take control. We have a target on our backs. People want to beat us. They know we’re better than we’ve been in the past. They’re going to be coming after us. But we’re not going to back down.”
The Trojans, who averaged nearly 40 points a game last season, still feature a contingent of good skill players, despite the departures of Schepperly, who accounted for 2,288 yards and 25 touchdowns running and throwing the ball; and Schwannecke, who was a threat running, receiving and returning.
Sean Williams takes over at quarterback. Joe Schepperly returns at fullback. Drew Girard and Ethan Campbell are ready to share the carries at halfback. Tight end Rhys Adle and receiver Zach Egbert will be two primary targets for Williams. All are juniors except Egbert.
“We have guys that can make plays,” Passinault said.
Campbell had a breakout game in a win over Traverse City West, but was injured most of the season.
A revamped offensive line will be the key. Guards Austin Plamondon and Seth Tice are back to anchor.
“We pull a lot and ask (the guards) to lead up through the holes,” Passinault said. “We’ll build our line around those two. It’s (line) still an area we need to work on, but they continue to get better every day.”
Williams led the JV team to a 7-1-1 record last season. Passinault said the junior is maturing into a good signal-caller.
“He’s made good strides in two weeks,” Passinault said. “He hasn’t turned the ball over. He’s made good decisions. We’ve really emphasized to him that he doesn’t have to win games for us, that he doesn’t have to try and replace Schepperly. He just needs to be solid in his decision-making and realize he just has to manage the game, not win it for us.”
Passinault said Williams has improved as a passer, and, like Schepperly, gives the Trojans an added dimension as a runner.
“Sean’s a good runner, a hard runner,” Passinault said. “He has some quickness. We’ll run a lot of the same plays we ran last year, hopefully, with the same effectiveness. “
If the offense stalls, the Trojans can turn to kicker Jacob Gorter, starting his fourth season on varsity.
“He’s a weapon,” Passinault said.
Defensively, Central will build around on Adle and Mitch Wynkoop at defensive ends, Josiah Lopez-Wild and Joe Schepperly at inside linebackers and Alex Liggett, Anthony Kratovil, Egbert and Campbell in the secondary. The Trojans are still trying to solidify the interior line.
“We have a very good perimeter with our bookends, linebackers and secondary,” Passinault said. “If we can hold our own inside, we can be pretty good on defense.”
Lopez-Wild, also a captain, will fill the void left by Pupel.
“I learned a lot from him,” Lopez-Wild said. “I’ll do my best.”
Lopez-Wild was slowed by two concussions and a flareup from an old shoulder injury last season, but when he was on the field he was productive.
Egbert will be one of several Trojans starting two ways.
“That’s why our conditioning this summer was so crucial,” the captain said. “This off season was the best I’ve seen, better than last year. I think with our conditioning we can handle it (playing both sides of the ball).”
The Trojans, who open Friday at Marquette, allowed an average 18 points last season.
“We shut out Petoskey,” Long said. “We had a 9-7 win over Jesuit. That’s a game (fans) don’t like to watch, but that was all defense there. And I think our defense can be even better this year.”
So now it’s up to the Trojans to respond to Passinault’s words — one year does not make a program.
“One year is nice, but two is better,” Lopez-Wild said. “We expect a lot of ourselves.”