Kolin Cope

Garrett’s Kolin Cope (10) takes the hand off from Levi Follett during the first half of a game against Lakeland last season.

FORT WAYNE — A lot of promise and optimism was in the air on Friday at the Memorial Coliseum for the 2019 Northeast Indiana High School Football Media Day.

Over 40 area football teams were represented by players dressed in their jerseys and coaches in their gameday polo shirts.

The first Friday there is official games being played is usually filled with enough hope and excitement for the entire season, but on this Friday afternoon, there was just enough excitement to last until that first official day of games, which is Friday, Aug. 23.

TURNING RECORDS INTO WINS

Ethan Hoover couldn’t help but get caught up in the emotions of discussing the upcoming season.

The Prairie Heights senior quarterback enters the season as an unquestioned leader of the team. Last year, Hoover experienced one of the best statistical seasons of his career, setting a new single-game record for passing yards (276) and moving within striking distance of five career records – all of which could fall this season if he puts up similar numbers.

All-time marks for points scored, touchdowns, passing yards, combined passing and rushing yards and pass completions are all well within Hoover’s reach. Hoover currently needs 51 points, 11 touchdowns, 439 passing yards, 942 combined yards and 10 pass completions to break each record.

Despite that success, though, the Panthers fielded one of the least efficient offenses in the area, a hindrance which squandered a talented defensive front and cost the team several games. For Hoover, this year presents his final attempt to right the ship.

Hoover can go down as one of the most prolific offensive players in Heights history, but can he turn it into wins?

He is running out of time to prove he can, and he knows it.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Hoover said of the looming accolades. “You try not to think about it, but you do. But, at the same time, those records don’t mean as much if they don’t produce good things for the team.

A lot of the pressure to improve the offense falls squarely on Hoover’s shoulders. Running back Ryan Rasler, the record-setting, do-it-all player that anchored the offense in 2018, has graduated, leaving a massive void with no clear solutions.

This season, the offense will go only as far as Hoover can take it.

“I know a lot of it is gonna fall on me,” Hoover said, “and I welcome that.”

“As an offense, we need to know what works, but also we can’t be afraid to try new things. Try everything and get into a flow. Hopefully that will lead to winning some games.”

Much of the improvement will come from a passing game which Hoover said is finally hitting its stride. But finding consistency in moving the chains is the biggest leap this unit needs to make.

“Last year, we had a good defense, but they were on the field all the time because our offense went three-and-out and had a bad punt,” Hoover said. “We can’t allow our defense to be out there all the time getting scored on because they’re tired this year. That’s not gonna win us games.”

Hoover has a personal goal for his team to finish 5-5 this year, three wins better than last. Get that momentum during the season, he said, and who knows what can happen with the sectional draw. Combined with his individual successes, it might just spur change for a program that has struggled with numbers for so long.

“I want the kids in middle school and youth league to see that, to look up and say, ‘Hey, I knew him, and he accomplished all these things’ and know they can do it themselves,” Hoover said. “Maybe that will make them get their friends around and want to play football. For me to be a role model to them, that would mean a lot to me.”

REFRESHING OFFSEASON FOR RAILROADERS

Garrett head coach Chris DePew has always believed to be successful in high school football you have to be able to run the ball. DePew believed that up until last season when he brought in a new offense that centered around the passing game. And after a 2-8 season, he’s learned to go back to what he knows will work.

“I learned that I was right all along since I’ve been doing this and big wholesale changes aren’t necessary,” DePew said. “That culture and how you’ve been doing things for a while are more important than X’s and O’s.”

The Railroaders made it hard on themselves trying to change who they were offensively in 2018. The running game struggled mightily before turning a corner during Week 4 against Lakeland when Kolin Cope rushed for 57 yards on 13 carries. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s what the Railroaders needed to figure out what they had in the then-sophomore back.

Cope went on to eclipse the 100-yard mark in five of the next six games and finished the year with 773 yards. DePew said that he expects the ball to be put in the stomach of Cope a lot more this upcoming season.

That doesn’t mean Garrett will throw out all of its passing concepts from last season, especially when they have a quarterback returning in Levi Follett who returns for his third year as the starting signal caller. Follett finished the year with 1,580 passing yards and eight touchdowns but 14 interceptions.

There will be less put on his plate this year since Garrett will try to become a more run-first team.

“Yes, damn straight,” DePew said. “It suits our personality.”

Getting back to the running game wasn’t the only priority for Garrett. DePew also brought back an offseason schedule that majority of teams may not follow in this day in age of high school football.

The Garrett football team spent the entire month of June working out in the weight room and didn’t put the pads on until July. DePew said that’s the way he used to do it 10 or 15 years ago.

“That was nice waiting until July to put pads on, nobody else is doing that. That’s kind of late compared to the way it’s done now,” DePew said.

After the spring season ended, DePew let his players who play other sports to continue them, even if they carried over into June, but when the calendar flipped to July, then he wanted the football preseason to officially start. He didn’t want his players to feel bogged down by the time the season arrived.

DePew also brought back the senior whitewater rafting trip for the coaches and seniors this season. The group of players and staff got back late Thursday night from a trip to West Virginia. DePew said his teams have better years when they take a trip like that before the season.

Will that be the case for 2019?

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