Herald Photos / File
DEFENSE  — The Friday night lights soon will shine on the area football stadiums as cool evenings and hot football welcome fall.
Herald Photos / File DEFENSE — The Friday night lights soon will shine on the area football stadiums as cool evenings and hot football welcome fall.
School is back in session in Howard County, which means the Friday night lights will shine over the football fields, cheerleaders will be rooting for their team, and fans will yell in delight when the home team scores a touchdown. 

The Howard County varsity football teams have seen successes and failures over the past few years, and yet all have risen to the challenge of the new season.

Kokomo

The Kokomo High School Wildkats have seen greater success than ever in the program over the last two seasons. 

The Kats earned back-to-back Sectional Championships and the school’s first ever Regional Championship in 2015. The team is set with veteran leadership and new face. With that, Head Coach Brett Colby expects to do big things.

“We have a couple kids that are going to make a big impact for us we feel. Jeremiah Neal and Anthony Fox and our front six are solid up there. In our secondary, we think Donte Smoot, Antonio Jones, and Dashawn Winston, will really help us,” he said.

Colby said the team’s strength lies in its speed on both sides of the ball.

“We have great speed, great athleticism,” he said. “Offensively, we’ve got good speed, and I think we’re going to be able to do 50/50 run/pass. It’s a chance to be a big thing for us. We’ll have a couple different sets we’ll be able to go to. If one’s not working or if we feel, game plan-wise, one will work better than the other, we can do that.”

The Kats will be led by four-year starting quarterback Kyle Wade.

“With Kyle, it’s like putting on an old glove. He’s been a four-year starter for us,” Colby said. “We’re looking forward to his senior year and him doing good things for us. His ability to see and read and I think his running ability this year, people will be surprised. I’m looking forward to having a great year with him, and I know he’s looking forward to having a great season as well.”

Colby said the team has to bring it each week, as there are no easy weeks on the schedule.

“We’re going to see each teams’ best game, and that’s fine. We relish that,” he said. “Hopefully we’re one of the teams on everyone’s schedule that people say, ‘This Kokomo team is going to be a good team, well coached, and they’re going to play hard.’ We hope the other teams say that about us because we say that about most teams we play.”

Western

First-year (at Western High School) coach Alex Stewart was no stranger to the team when he assumed the role of head football coach. Moving over from Hoosier Conference rival Northwestern, Stewart stepped into the program.

“The transition has been really good. The kids have responded well, and they’ve worked hard. I’m really pleased with their effort in the summer program. They’ve bought in to what we’re doing. It has been a lot of fun so far. We’ve got a group of kids who, over the last few years, have dealt with a lot of diversity, injuries, having to play younger guys. Now they have experience, and they’re upperclassmen now. I feel like they’re ready to turn things around to get Western football back to where it was and back to winning a lot of football games,” he said.

His team is filled with players who have several years of varsity experience. He said many of the seniors on the roster have been three- or four-year starters. That count includes four-year starting quarterback Tyler Knepley.

In addition to having a lot of cumulative varsity minutes, Stewart said the team’s biggest strength is its depth.

“I noticed [at the scrimmage], particularly in our backfield, there’s not really a drop off from our number one runner to our number two runner. We’ve got several kids that can carry the ball and do the job. That’s pretty much how it is across the board. We’ve got a lot of kids that can step in there and play. We’ve got depth on both sides of the ball,” he said.

The Panthers have a tough schedule through the season, another lineup that won’t allow any slack on Friday nights. 

“We are a former 3A team that has moved up to 4A when (IHSAA) made it six classes,” Stewart said. “The positive is that we do play a tough regular season schedule, which will prepare us for the tournament when the time comes.”

Northwestern

The Tigers also have a new coach leading the charge this season. Newcomer Steve Disler assumed the role of head coach, filling the role left by Alex Stewart. 

Disler said there was a bit of a learning curve for the team as they learned his game. However, they took it slow, and there was no push back from the kids.

“All of the kids in the entire program would run through a brick wall for you. They are willing to do it, and they’re willing to do it full speed,” he said. “Additionally, we have some fantastic senior leadership. We’ve got 12 seniors, but every one of them is more than capable of leading this team. The kids will follow them.”

Unlike Kokomo and Western, Northwestern graduated its four-year starting quarterback, Trey Richmond, in 2017, leaving a hole in the lineup. Two have stepped forward to compete for the job, both of whom Disler said are capable of leading the Tigers on the field.

“We’ve got two guys that are competing, Nick Sottong and Levi Hrabos, a senior and junior,” he said. “They are different style play quarterbacks. The kids will adjust to who our quarterback is and the style of play. I think we can be successful. They have both been great leaders, and the kids rally around them. They know whoever gets the call, they’ll lead the team.”

Disler said the two have been working hard together, getting in reps. He described them as competitors who both want the job, but they both care deeply for the team.

Disler said that part of his system is that he doesn’t measure his team based on who the opponent will be for the coming night. 

“Our goal from day one is to improve every single week. Regardless of whoever we play, it’s not a Hamilton Heights week or a Western week. It’s always a Northwestern week. We want to play everybody we can and beat everyone we can. It’s one game at a time. One day at a time,” he said.

Taylor

When Taylor Head Coach Dennis Bentzler took over the football program in 2014, he set goals for the program, and the players have worked to get the team back on track. The program saw new life as the boys got behind Bentzler, moving the program forward. 

“The 2015 team graduated 15 kids, which is huge for us. We lost quality kids, and last year we basically played a varsity schedule with a junior varsity team,” he said. “We had a lot of young kids who are now juniors and seniors (we have nine of each), and they’re an outstanding group.”

Bentzler said the program is in the second phase of its rebirth where he said they’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

This season, he said he’s got a lot of experience on the field, and Bentzler feels the team will be more competitive than last season.

“We took our lumps,” he said. “We were somewhat competitive last year, but this year I feel we’ll be more competitive. I’m not saying we’re going to win conference or sectional, but we’re going to be competitive in both of those. We’ve got some of the best athletes we’ve had in a long time.”

Bentzler said the core group of the team is the junior class complemented by strong seniors. The junior class is strong, even though they are not big. 

The work the players have been putting in over the past few years has paid off. Bentzler said this season was the first season he felt like a bona fide head coach where he was able to rely on an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator where in the past he’s had to handle one or both of those roles on the sidelines.

He said the first few weeks of the season will be crucial, especially since the Titans will not play at home until their fifth game of the season.

“We need something big to happen at North White and Tri-Central. With the change up of teams in the conference and having to revise some things, we play the first month on the road,” he said. “We need something good to happen early, and if it does, look out.”

Eastern

The Eastern Comets return several veteran players as well this season. In fact, only four players graduated last year, so the majority of Head Coach Josh Edwards’ team is in tact from the 2016 season.

“We’ve got a lot of veterans coming back, some that have started since their freshmen year,” he said. “We had big leadership last year, but we only had the four seniors. This year the leadership has been wonderful. Our numbers are up big time. We’re pretty pumped about that. I’m seeing a lot of competition for spots. You talk about numbers being a big thing. With numbers you get competition for positions, which makes your team better. We’ve had very competitive practices this year. It has been great.”

Another benefit to returning so many players is that Edwards has a lot of depth. According to him, he has at least two players for every position on the field, and the athletes are quality enough that he can substitute players without having to dip down into his young players, which was something he had to do in the past.

“I think our offense is going to be strong. We’ve got a good quarterback in Garrett Hetzner. He basically started half the games last season when our quarterback was injured. He’s a seasoned veteran even though he wasn’t the true starter. He’s a competitor and leader,” Edwards said. 

Additionally, he only lost one player on the offensive line, so he said he has a good amount of protection for his quarterback. 

He also said he has four athletes capable of running the ball and being big contributors on Friday night.

Last season, the Comets made changes to the defense that netted good results. They reduced their points given up per game by 10, so Edwards said the team has worked to build on that foundation and strengthen it.