KENDALLVILLE — East Noble’s senior class has been at the forefront in leading their team to Friday’s sectional championship game against Leo, but it’s been the underclassmen who have provided the depth to make this year’s run possible.

“We knew coming into this year that we had some experienced seniors that were going to be great players and everybody recognized that,” East Noble coach Luke Amstutz said. “But we knew this team couldn’t be a very successful team if we didn’t have some major contributions from some underclassmen.”

The Knights (11-0) have multiple underclassmen who lead the team in rushing yards, tackles and interceptions. This should bode well for not only the rest of this season with the experience they’ve gained so far, but for the next couple of seasons as well.

“Between a junior class that’s not a real big class, we knew that we needed to get five or six of those kids playing in key spots and really helping us and they have,” Amstutz said. “We also knew were going to have some sophomores really step up.

“The old adage that high school football coaches say is, ‘For every sophomore that starts a game, you lose a game.’ We’ve had some teams where that’s held up. Last year, we started one or two and went 9-2. This year, I think we’ve blown that out of the water pretty much since we’ve got a few sophomores starting. I’ve been impressed with how they’ve risen to the occasion and played really well.”

After just one carry during the 2018 season, junior Justin Marcellus is the team’s leading rusher with 952 yards on 181 carries and seven touchdowns. Marcellus has been a great compliment to quarterback Bailey Parker in running the read option this season.

“Justin was a little bit of a surprise. We knew he had ability, but we had questions about how durable he was going to be. The fact that we haven’t had to turn and handle the ball off every play has been huge,” Amstutz said. “He’s not getting banged around too much. He’s been able to stay healthy, because he’s not carrying an exorbitant amount of carries. He’s really surprised us with his toughness and his vision.”

Fellow classmates Jacob VanGorder and Cole Schupbach have been leading the way on the defensive end. The duo leads the team in tackles with a combined total of 234 and 12 tackles for loss. Schupbach is tied with senior Trey Ritchie for the most sacks with four.

“It’s rare to have underclassmen linebackers lead the defense,” Amstutz said. “Usually, teams have a senior that manhandles people, like Kenny Cook was for us. He would get people in the right spots. Jacob and Cole have stepped into that role and been awesome all year. What’s helped them a lot is the senior defensive linemen in front of them. Leyth (Al-Mohammedawi) and those guys have done a tremendous job, and that’s really kept people off those guys and made it easier for them to get a lot of tackles.”

VanGorder has almost tripled his number of tackles from last season, and Schupbach, who played one snap last season at the varsity, said he thought he was going to be the weakest link on this year’s defense.

“Because it was going to be my first time on varsity. Compared to last year, it looked like varsity was a whole new level, but I think I did a pretty good jump coming up here,” Schupbach said.

Before the season, Luke Amstutz said a player to watch was sophomore Rowan Zolman. The 6-foot-3-inch defensive back/wide receiver has created a lot of problems for opposing teams.

“I think he’s a matchup nightmare on both sides of the ball. A tall kid who’s maybe the fastest kid on the field, who has ball skills, who can guard people, who can play a deep zone, who can come up and make tackles. God, it’s what every coach wants to have,” Amstutz said.

Zolman leads the team with four interceptions and has 62 tackles. He also has three touchdown receptions this year. He said he really tries to follow the older players in how they go about their business on the field.

“Just watching upperclassmen and how they compete and what their effort level is, is a big factor. Because I want as good if not better than what they set as an example here,” Zolman said.

Sophomore Nick Munson has come on towards the latter half of the season as another weapon in the Knights’ passing game. Since the last time East Noble played Leo, Munson has had multiple catches every game and scored three touchdowns, including one last week against DeKalb.

“He went from a guy that we had to put on the field because we need a spot to a guy that we’re trying to get the ball to,” Amstutz said. “It’s what sophomores do. They grow so fast if they have opportunities to get better, and they realize how fast varsity football is and they start to acclimate to that.

“Nick is one of the best route runners in our programs. When the best two (defensive backs) on the other team are guarding Hayden (Jones) and Gage (Ernsberger), he’s matched up on the third (defensive back). That’s a no-brainer a lot of the time. It’s a good matchup for us to look at.”

Brett Christian, a sophomore tight end, has been another reliable target for Parker, especially near the end zone and has caught five touchdowns this season. Amstutz said he’s one of the most productive seasons for a tight end at East Noble.

“He was another one that was a little bit of surprise. He was injured in the offseason, and we really didn’t know. We kind of went into season wondering if we were going to have a tight end. We thought we were going to play with four receivers and doing things a little different,” Amstutz said. “But getting him healthy as the year went on, he really learned, got more physical and has made great plays. He’s on the line next to Chris Hood, another sophomore who’s had a really great year too.”

You might not know Hood because he plays along the offensive line. But 6-foot-7, 315-pound tackle has been in the starting lineup since the season opener alongside four seniors, and he has been a huge asset up front with Christian.

“Those two had a learning curve at the beginning of the year and made some mistakes, but as the year went on, they’ve gotten better and better,” Amstutz said. “Honestly, they’ve played as well as seniors that we’ve had at those positions.”

Amstutz, like many coaches, don’t like to look too far ahead on the schedule, let alone years ahead. But for at least the next couple of years, don’t expect East Noble to fall off.

“I think every year everybody looks at us and says, ‘Well, this will be the year they’re not very good.’ I think this was the year people thought we weren’t going to be good honestly,” Amstutz said. “We’ll figure it out, and we’ll get kids in the right spots. Having that nucleus of varsity experience, I think between the juniors and sophomores there’s a good 10 kids that are going to be massive contributors this year that come back next year. Add that into a talented junior varsity team and some more good sophomores and develop some kids in the offseason, I think we’re going to have a lot of success the next few years.”

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