Few would have ever thought it two years ago.
Even fewer would have thought it last year, considering the number graduation did on the Trojans and some rough early losses.
However, the Hillsboro High School football team reached the playoffs both times.
As Trojan coach Len Coryea enters his fourth year, he may have to pull off his biggest magic trick yet if he hopes to keep intact his streak of two consecutive appearances in the postseason.
Coryea is a coach, not a magician, and it might take magic for Hillsboro to make it a third straight season.
He’s lost 70 percent of his scoring from last year’s team, which finished 6-5 and were bi-district champs before being upended by familiar pest and semifinalist Conway Springs in the regional final.
Gone is arguably the best one-two punch Hillsboro has had this decade in the fleet-footed quarterback Spencer Brown and do-it-all tailback Jake Yoder.
Those two alone made up for 2,012 of Hillsboro’s 2,619 yards rushing.
Also missing are bulldog lineman Michael Scheele, Zac Jost, C.J. Shaw, Mitchell Koop, and wideout Grant Schneider.
Graduation again has hammered the Trojans, but Coryea’s been here before, and much to his opponents’ chagrin, he’s still got some equipment left in the shed.
With Coryea’s largest roster to date, there’s enough left to make a third straight postseason appearance reality, but a big question that looms is if his team can manage to stay healthy.
Two years ago, the arrival of Brown had Trojan fans whooping and hollering.
Last year, the transfer of Tabor football coach Mike Gottsch’s son Ben, had some believing Brown’s stint at quarterback may be in jeopardy.
Ben has more of an arm than Brown, but a cracked vertebrae in his back sustained in the second game of the season never let his flight take off. He hasn’t taken a snap in nearly a year.
Coryea doesn’t have a lot of reason to worry should tragedy strike Gottsch again.
Brown went down at the end first half in a 48-13 blowout of Sedgwick in the first round of last year’s playoffs, throwing then-sophomore Jacob Fish into the fire as the starter for the Conway Springs game.
Fish proved he can produce when the game’s on the line, completing 63 percent of his passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow 35-26 defeat.
Neither Gottsch nor Fish have quite the mobility of Brown, so Hillsboro will rely more on the pass in the shotgun-spread offense.
Tyler Jones and freshman Luke Moore have been working out, but neither have any experience calling plays for the varsity.
“The biggest key for us is keeping healthy,” Coryea said. “I believe that we will have some good starters, but we have very little depth at quarterback and on the line.
“Our first group of skill position players are very talented individuals.”
With a pair of back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in eight years in Michael Suderman and Yoder, senior Ishmael Morris has primarily seen action in games that already were decided.
After two years of wanting a chance to show what he can do, the role of a big-play man in the backfield falls solely on Morris.
He worked on his speed and strength in the offseason, and as the returning leading rusher (81 carries, 493 yards for six TDs), he’ll give the Trojans a legitimate option at tailback.
He rushed for more than 100 yards twice last year - the best coming in the destruction of Sedgwick with a career-high 134 yards.
Isaac Leihy lacks the size of some of the recent Trojan fullbacks, but he’s a powerful bruiser who can open the lanes and pick up the tough yardage.
Outside of Leihy and Morris, the Trojans lack varsity experience in the backfield.
Cat-quick junior Chris Couts got some experience against Sedgwick and should be able to help out again as might Chance Reece and Jones.
The Trojans leaned so heavily on the run last year, they completed 52 percent of their passes (76-146) and just 11 touchdowns.
With gunslingers like Gottsch and Fish, the Trojans’ strength could be its passing game, especially with senior all-state wideout Daniel Jost back.
When Hillsboro threw the ball last year, it was mainly to Jost, who hauled in 45 catches for a team-high 780 yards and seven scores.
As a four-year starter, Jost accounted for the remaining 30 percent of the offense, and he’ll again be one of the Trojans’ most reliable forces.
Fellow 6-5 senior David Loewen’s frame alone is going to cause match-up problems against any team’s secondary.
He only caught three passes for 32 yards last year, but he can rest assured they’ll be going to him more this year.
Seniors Justin Wodke and Andy Klassen provide depth with Klassen the likely starter at tight end. Juniors Daniel Dick, Taylor Hagen, and Jacob Edwards also may challenge for playing time.
Much of the Trojans’ success on offense will come from how well the line can block.
“The projected starting backfield of Gottsch, Morris, and Leihy will be a solid group in which we can build a line around.”
The Trojans aren’t huge on the line, but they’re fast and strong with workhorse senior John Hein anchoring at tackle.
At 6-4, Hein was an honorable mention all-class 3A selection by The Wichita Eagle after his second year starting.
Guard Tyler Lofton has three years of varsity experience as well, with fellow senior Jake Kenney filling the other guard.
Other than the trio, there’s not a lot of experience across the front.
Brandon Brown is the likely replacement for Zac Jost at center, but he’s never played on offense.
The other tackle spot is still up for grabs with Neil Kaiser, A.J. Litchfield, Evan Just, and possibly Sam Bookless battling it out.
The Trojans didn’t suffer the devastation by graduation as much defensively as it did on offense, so there may be less concern.
What might be glaring to defensive coordinator Dennis Boldt is the fact that Hillsboro allowed 22 points a game a year - something that must improve should the Trojans struggle scoring.
The interior line returns intact with Lofton and Hein at tackles, and Klassen and Loewen on the rush.
Klassen is quick around the outside and Loewen has the height to disrupt the pass and hassle the quarterback.
The linebackers are experienced and quick with Brandon Brown, Jones, and Leihy back.
Couts, Hagen, and Reece give some solid depth, but none have logged many varsity minutes in the backfield.
Quarterbacks may want to think twice about throwing on the Trojan secondary, especially to Jost’s side.
Jost led Hillsboro with six interceptions a year ago to earn all-MCAA honors as a defensive back, and with Morris joining him in the secondary, the Trojans should be stout against the pass.
Jacob Edwards, sophomore Ben Bebermeyer, Fish, Wodke, or Dick, could fill the other vacancies at corner and safety.
“Our goal will be to continue the output on offense, but tighten up our defense for this season,” Coryea said. “We averaged 33 points per game last year, but gave up 22.”