RENSSELAER — They’re coming in hot.
That’s what Rensselaer Central coach Chris Meeks sees in North Newton, which visits Rensselaer’s Harrison Sports Complex Friday night in a Class 2A Sectional 33 opener.
The Spartans (6-3) own a five-game win streak and recently put a bow on another Midwest Conference championship, beating Tri-County, 12-0, on a rain-soaked field last week in Morocco.
“(Hall of Fame coach and former RCHS assistant) Chris Geesman told me once, ‘You’ve got to be worried about a hot team,’” Meeks said. “When you look at North Newton, they’re hot.”
Meeks credits North Newton’s turnaround — the Spartans opened the season at 1-3, including a 35-8 loss to the Bombers (5-4) in week two — to a change in offensive philosophy. Formerly a quick-hit passing team with a single back in a shotgun formation, the Spartans moved to a wing-T offense to utilize four weapons, including sophomore quarterback Evan Gagnon.
“They have a big, strong line that runs it well,” Meeks said of the new offense. “They’ve got four guys that are very good athletes that run the ball, led by the Rowland kid.”
Sophomore Kadyn Rowland has rushed for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season as a primary back. He gained 106 yards against the Bombers in the first meeting in August.
Sophomore Lane Zander and senior Brayden Schoon also share the ball with Rowland and Gagnon, who is the key component in the running game.
Gagnon has rushed for 326 yards with three touchdowns. “I think the quarterback looks more comfortable under center, but he’s still a threat,” Meeks said.
Zander (260, two TDs) and Schoon (305, 3 TDs) have also excelled in the wing-T formation.
“Defensively, they’re quick and well coached. They fly to the ball and they have some nice open-field tacklers. On film, they look very good,” Meeks added.
RCHS opened the season at 3-1, but have lost three of its last five games. They lost back-to-back games to ranked West Lafayette and Central Catholic, playing without their two best players — seniors Dylan Kidd and Kelton Hesson — due to injuries.
Hesson returned in week seven at Benton Central (a 48-18 win) and both he and Kidd were in the field at Northwestern (43-8 win).
“We didn’t have our playmakers against Central Catholic and West Lafayette,” Meeks said. “We had inexperienced kids at running back in those games. When we’ve had our guys, we’ve been pretty potent. I think Tate (Drone) has done a nice job throwing the ball and we’ve had several kids run the ball effectively for us.”
Kidd has missed two-plus games with injury but still leads the Bombers with 804 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. He rushed for over 1,000 yards as a junior.
Hesson has gained 464 yards on the ground with five scores and has 458 receiving yards with five more touchdowns.
Freshman running back Diego Hernandez-Reyes has a 100-yard game and has rushed for 287 total yards with a touchdown and Drone has completed 51 of 82 passes fo 667 yards and seven TDs.
A rivalry game to open sectional play will keep the Bombers focused on the task at hand.
They don’t dare peek ahead to week two where Andrean (6-3) could be waiting if it is able to beat Wheeler.
“Anybody who gets caught looking ahead, those are the teams that usually bite the dust,” Meeks said. “It doesn’t matter what your record was — 0-9, 9-0 — every team is starting new. You better be dialed in, you better be ready to go and you better play your best football game.”
The Bomber coaching staff expects North Newton to focus on the running game Friday night, much like it attempted to do in week two. RCHS won that game by four scores, but it didn’t come easy.
Rensselaer got big plays in the running game — Kidd had 172 rushing yards — and Drone kept the Spartans honest with 98 passing yards and a score.
“If teams want to put 10 in the box, I feel like we can throw effectively,” Meeks said. “Our identity is we’re going to pound you with our running game, mix in some play-action passes and play strong defensive game with strong special teams play. If we do that, that’s ingredients for success.”