PANDORA – With the graduation of a number of talented players, many expect Pandora-Gilboa to take a step back after two highly successful seasons that saw the Rockets go 21-4 with two postseason appearances and a Blanchard Valley Conference title in 2018.
And Rocket head coach Matt Hershey doesn’t mind if opponents think this. In fact, he revels in the underdog role.
“We used the fact that other teams have beaten up on us and tried to use the revenge factor, the underdog role, and I think we are still in the underdog role,” Hershey said. “I don’t think anybody expects us to be contender this year. We are happy with that. If people want to keep doubting us, that is fine.”
Whether Hershey can match the same high level of competitiveness the Rockets will be determined by those players getting their chance to shine.
Gone is all-Northwest District quarterback Jared Breese, along with sure-handed receivers Riley Larcom and Travis Maag, running back Payton Traxler and all-league linemen, Gage Hovest and Zeb George.
Ten returners are back with a number of them seeing plenty of playing time during the Rockets’ success the past two seasons. The key for the Rockets is to have the veteran players gel with the newcomers to hopefully continue the winning ways at Pandora-Gilboa.
Hershey added that no spot is assured, and he wants his players to remain hungry and competitive for playing time.
On the offense, the first order of business is to find a signal-caller, and replacing Breese will not be easy. Two candidates have emerged as the successor. Austin Miller, a senior who played receiver last year, and Silas Schmenk, are splitting reps in the preseason.
Hershey added that they would like to remain a balanced offense.
Whomever gets the starting nod, the quarterback will have some good weapons to throw to and in the backfield. Yes, Larcom and Maag are gone, but back are Bryce Basinger, who had 31 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns, along with Blake Steiner and Macke. Basinger was a third-team all-BVC selection at receiver.
Taking over the running back chores will be Sam Burkholder, a junior, who saw action after Traxler went down with an injury at the end of the season. In his brief stint starting, Burkholder amassed 270 yards and five touchdowns.
Up front on the offensive line, Pandora-Gilboa returns a trio of starters in Isaac Stall, Tommy Hovest and Dylan Bryan.
Junior Trevor Gerten has been looking good in the offseason and preseason and is expected to garner a starting spot.
Hershey added that because of the small size and numbers out, building up depth at all positions is imperative.
Defensively, most of those names that you heard on offense, will be going on defense. Hershey said they are switching up the defense and going to a 3-4 formation to take advantage of the team’s speed.
Bryan and junior Gavin Biery are back on the defensive line.
Stahl returns as the middle linebacker and put up big numbers for the Rockets as he produced 80 tackles and four sacks. Burkholder and Gerten will handle two of the linebacker spots, and Hershey has moved Blake Steiner to linebacker after spending last season as a safety.
The defensive backfield returns all four players. Macke and Baysinger are going to play cornerbacks. Baysinger, a first-team, all-BVC selection on defense, had 22 tackles and one interception last year and Macke recorded three interceptions in 2018.
Schmenk and Miller, who is finally healthy, will be playing the safety spots.