One year ago today it was written in this very space, “Excitement is building to a fever pitch on both sides of Greene County as the 2016 gridiron campaign approaches for our two county football programs. Anticipation is running high in Eastern Greene County after the best season in school history. And in Linton, expectations are always lofty.
“Eastern Greene and Linton-Stockton are coming off the finest seasons in the respective histories of each program.”
The 2015 season had been a history-making campaign in Little Cincinnati.
The Thunderbirds enjoyed the winningest season in the 13-year history of the program, posting an 8-3 record.
And it was a season of firsts. The 8-3 mark was the first winning record in program history. And Eastern Greene won its first-ever Southwest Conference championship.
Linton-Stockton experienced unprecedented success in 2015.
The Miners finally got over the semistate hump, making it to Lucas Oil Stadium for the IHSAA Class A State Finals for the first time in the storied history of the program.
The question was posed, “Can both teams duplicate last year's successes? We may not know until November.”
Well, the Thunderbirds and the Miners did all of that and then some in the fall of 2016.
If optimism was running high at Eastern Greene ahead of last season it should be off the charts as the coming campaign approaches.
Eastern Greene bettered 2016’s then-best-ever 8-3 record, going 10-3. Along the way, the Thunderbirds captured the first sectional championship in the history of the program.
The three losses were to the top two ranked teams in Class A. The T-Birds lost on the road at then-No.1 Lafayette Central Catholic in September. A pair of losses to eventual state champion Linton-Stockton ensued, at Linton in the regular season and at home in the regional.
Eastern Greene is clearly a program on the rise. The Thunderbirds have posted a cumulative record of 23-11 in head coach Joey Paridaen’s first three years at the helm.
Prior to Paridaen’s arrival, Eastern Greene had never enjoyed a winning season on the gridiron.
And the T-Birds are well-poised to build on the previous two years’ unprecedented success.
The entire offensive line returns, along with triple-threat Caleb Hamilton.
Last season Hamilton carried the ball 230 times for 1,654 yards and 30 touchdowns, caught 47 passes for 716 yards and six scores and 22-of-36 passes for 171 yards and two TDs.
Eastern Greene will have to survive without dual-threat quarterback Jeff Graham. The T-Bird field general completed 96 of 158 passes for 1,291 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 845 yards on 150 carries. He was also named first-team Class A All-State.
Graham will be playing at Division III Mount St. Joseph’s near Cincinnati, Ohio this fall.
But the T-Birds already have experienced playing without Graham. Eastern Greene won its first four games last year with Graham on the sidelines after surgery for a broken left forearm.
Hamilton is considered a likely candidate to replace Graham behind center. J.W. Howard and Jackson Rogers have also taken some snaps over the summer.
With over a dozen impact players returning, Eastern Greene has the look of a potential semistate contender - if the Thunderbirds can escape Sectional 48.
With Linton moving up to Class 2A under the IHSAA’s Tournament Success Factor, Class A Sectional 48 was realigned this year.
Eastern Greene - along with West Washington, who the Thunderbirds edged 34-32 in the Sectional 47 title game - move west under the realignment.
West Washington must replace virtually its entire offensive unit including workhorse running back Landon McPheeters, quarterback Michael Sizemore, lineman Jackson Byrne, and its entire receiving corps.
Perhaps Eastern Greene’s chief competition in Sectional 48 will come from the “other” Thunderbirds at North Central.
Last year Eastern eked out a 29-28 win at Farmersburg on Andy Drummond’s 35-yard extra-point kick after rallying back from a 28-8 third-quarter deficit.
North Central coach Travis Nolting is high on his incoming junior class. And NC will boast one of its biggest offensive lines in school history.
The two Thunderbirds will meet in the regular-season finale October 13 at Eastern Greene. Circle the date on your calendar.
How do you improve on perfection?
Well, you don’t. Such is the dilemma facing the Linton-Stockton Miners headed into the 2017 season.
After the best season in the long and storied history of Miner football - the 2015 Miners made the school’s first-ever State Finals appearance - Linton-Stockton did one better last season, going undefeated while winning the long-coveted Class A State Championship.
But the Miners will be facing a ton of question marks.
A bumper crop of 16 seniors has graduated. With their departure the entire offensive line and three-fourths of the backfield must be replaced, along with the bulk of the defensive unit.
Among those, quarterback Tyler Meurer, linebacker Avery Gentry and lineman Bryer Pope earned first-team All-State honors.
But a pair of Junior All-State performers return in linebacker Chance Howard and two-way performer Keaton Cox.
Howard enjoyed a breakout season, leading the Miners with 94 tackles. He was chosen by Indiana Football Digest as one of the publication’s Prime Time 25 players to watch for 2015.
Cox rushed for 887 yards from his wingback position. This year he may see time at the quarterback position while patrolling the secondary on the other side of the ball.
In addition, returning starter Levi Jerrells will help bolster the defensive line.
Virtually every position is wide open and everyone on the roster will have an opportunity to step up.
But Linton has been in similar positions before.
Last year the defending Class A State Finalists bid farewell to 12 seniors - seven of whom were starters.
And every year since 2012 I’ve said, “There’s no way the Miners can possibly be as good as they were last year. Look at what they’ve lost.”
And every year I’ve been wrong.
It won’t be easy for the Miners this year.
As previously mentioned Linton-Stockton moves up in class under the IHSAA’s Tournament Success Factor.
But regardless of class, the regular season schedule is daunting.
Linton-Stockton has assembled arguably the toughest docket in its history. The Miners face a five-game gauntlet of Southridge, Sullivan, 2015 2A state champ Monrovia, 2014 1A champ North Vermillion and defending 2A state champion Cardinal Ritter to start the season.
It's easy to assume Linton-Stockton might take a step back this year. And with the schedule this year's edition will be battle-hardened early.
For the better part of 15 years the Miner program has had players step up each year and continue the program's sustained success. But this year might be one of the most challenging in that time span.
We shall find out.