By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds football team is not afraid to play teams in bigger classes to prepare for district play and this year is no different.
The defending Class 2A champions open the year against one of the top 10 teams in Kentucky in overall wins on Friday in the Ashland Blazer Tomcats. Ashland ranks ninth in the state with 645 wins in school history.
“We’re using those first five games as a measuring stick,” said Dan Wagner, NewCath Head Coach. “When we come out of those first five games, we’ll have played as good of teams as we’ll see in the playoffs. We always pride ourselves on being ready as the year goes along.”
Both teams come into the season with new head coaches. Unlike other head coaching changes, they were in-staff promotions so the players were already familiar with them. Wagner and Ashland head coach Tony Love served as defensive coordinators on the respective staffs previously before last year’s head coaches moved on. NewCath head coach Eddie Eviston took the Offensive Coordinator job at Georgetown College after the Thoroughbreds won their fifth state championship last year and veteran Ashland head coach Leon Hart retired.
Ashland enters the season fresh off a 9-3 campaign. The Tomcats constantly battle the Johnson Central Golden Eagles for district championships in Class 4A, District 8. The Tomcats lost 52-13 to the eventual state champion Highlands Bluebirds in the second round of the playoffs last year. But they trailed the Bluebirds just 15-13 at halftime of that game.
The Tomcats also play a challenging non-district schedule. That includes an annual game against southern Ohio power Ironton.
“We have always played a very challenging schedule. This year is no different,” Love said. “Similar to NCC, we are not afforded the ‘rebuild’ mindset by our community. Our players know this and take great pride in ‘the next man’ up and having no excuses.”
Both teams lost a good load of talented seniors from last year’s team. The Thoroughbreds (11-4 last year) are breaking in many new faces in their spread and 4-4 defenses after graduating 15 seniors from last year’s 2A state championship team. They beat Covington Holmes, 24-0 in two and a half quarters worth of scrimmage time on Friday. Quarterback Mac Franzen, Jack Sutkamp and Kalvin Moore scored rushing touchdowns for NewCath. Franzen plays defensive back with Moore and Sutkamp manning linebacker spots on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore Jacob Smith is the leading returning rusher from last year.
Franzen previously said the passing game is coming along. Receivers like Tommy Donnelly will be looking to help carry the load.
“We want to get the ball and spread it around,” Wagner said. “We have enough people to be able to do that. Obviously, time will tell but I think we’ve got some young kids that are ready to step up and start playing. We have to get through these first five games and get them ready for these last five.”
Ashland graduated all but two starters on defense. The Tomcats run similar offenses and defenses to NewCath. Senior defensive lineman Luke Johnson and senior defensive back James Queen lead the Tomcats on the defensive side of the ball.
“Not knowing your opponent creates several challenges, especially early in the year where you don’t have a body of work to be able to study and break down,” Love said. “However, in some ways it can be beneficial because it forces the players to focus on the fundamental rules and keys we teach our players. In my opinion, it becomes relative due to the fact the other team is experiencing the same situation.”
The Tomcats will build their offense around sophomore running back Quinton Baker. Former University of Kentucky standout Al Baker’s son ran for 932 yards in nine games last year before missing the playoffs because of injuries. Hunter Prince will be the quarterback for Ashland.
“Basically on the end, they have a tackle that comes down under the other tackle,” said Colin Hoover, NewCath junior offensive/defensive lineman. “That usually means he’s crossing on the other side of the field and getting the handoff. We need to contain (Baker) and not let him get outside.”
Wagner said he’s been pleased with the team’s work ethic in practice this week. Moore and Franzen previously said their class wanted to provide strong senior leadership this year.
“Our kids know how to work. I’ll give them that,” Wagner said. “Obviously, you have to kick them in the tail occasionally, figuratively not literally to get them moving. We’ve been there and they know what it takes to get to the state finals so we’ll just keep working doing the same things we do. Senior leadership will do that for you.”
Game time is 7:30 p.m. at Newport Stadium. The Thoroughbreds also play Cooper, Campbell County, Dixie Heights and Simon Kenton before opening District 6 action.