Every high school football head coach around the state spent the summer checking WIAA updates, desperately hoping for the chance at some type of season.
Indian Trail head coach Paul Hoffman was probably hoping just a little more than everyone else.
What a shame it would’ve been for Hoffman to have this fall pass by without a chance to see what his roster could do, because it’s the type of roster Hoffman has said comes around about every 15 years.
In other words, the Hawks are deep, talented and experienced, and even though it’s a shortened season, they’ll at least get the chance to play, starting with Friday night’s Southeast Conference and season opener against Oak Creek at Jaskwhich Stadium.
“We’ve got some great kids,” Hoffman said, in his fourth season leading Indian Trail. “I’m not even talking about the top-level talent. We’re thick across the board at a lot of different positions. I’m excited. I just want to see these guys get on the field and play ball.”
Has he coached a more athletic group in his years of coaching in different capacities?
“Personally, no,” Hoffman said. “I’d have to go back 15 years to think of it even being close to this. And I wasn’t the head coach. I was just a little sophomore O-line coach. It’s a special, special group. Not just on pure talent, but they work hard. There’s no ego there. Everyone knows we all do our job.”
One simple measure of how deep and talented the Hawks are is how many starters they’re returning on offense. That number is technically 12, one more than is allowed on the field, because talented senior receiver Raymone Jones — who played at the SEC varsity level as a freshman — comes over from Tremper.
Jones, a second-team All-SEC pick with the Trojans last season, joins returning seniors Clayton Bishop and Kameron Lee to make a receiver group that’s an embarrassment of riches at the high school level. Lee, a first-team All-SEC selection last season, led the county with 550 receiving yards in 2019, while Jones was second with 497 and first in receptions with 43.
Bishop, a first-team All-SEC pick at defensive back, provides another big target at 6-foot-1, 181 pounds, to go with Lee (6-3, 200) and Jones (6-2, 215).
“They’ve put in their time in the weight room, they’ve gotten stronger, the confidence to do these things,” Hoffman said. “It’s not just being the best athlete. Being the best athlete doesn’t get anybody anywhere. You’ve got to have it between the ears. You’ve got to make the right decisions. You’ve got to choose to work every day. It’s not just when you want.”
If all that wasn’t enough, the Hawks will have another weapon at their disposal this season in senior Ezra Stargell, a lightning-quick athlete who’s been a starting point guard in basketball since his freshman year and decided to play football this fall.
“You’ve seen his feet on the basketball court,” Hoffman said. “He’s just got great feet, good work ethic. He’s fast. Everybody sees his quickness on the basketball court, but he can fly.”
Guiding all that offensive talent is a three-year starter at quarterback in strong-armed senior Argjent Ismaili, who as a junior was named second-team All-Conference and threw for a county-best 1,455 yards to go with 13 touchdowns.
A highly intelligent student who’s getting looks from Ivy League programs, Hoffman said Ismaili has command of a passing game that was revamped in the offseason.
Of course, all that talent can’t be utilized if there’s no blocking up front. One of the reasons Franklin — which ended Indian Trail’s season with a 44-7 blowout win in a WIAA Division-1 second-round playoff game last year — has dominated the SEC of late is because the Sabers routinely control the lines.
Well, this year Indian Trail has a front five as strong and experienced as anyone in senior left tackle Gavin Powell (6-2, 205), junior left guard Luis Delvale-Vera (6-0, 305), senior center Mason Kochersperger (5-10, 250), senior right guard Riley Kennow (6-5, 305) and senior right tackle Jacob Seeger (6-7, 260).
Kennow was a first-team All-SEC pick last season, Kochersperger was on the second team and Delvale-Vera was honorable mention. Kennow and Kochersperger were also named to the Joe Thomas Award Preseason Watch List for the best senior offensive lineman in the state.
“To win this conference, to have a chance, you’ve got to have a good, big O-line,” Hoffman said. “We’re blessed to have that.”
Running behind them will be the power-speed combo of junior Xavier McWhorter (team-leading 523 rushing yards last season) and sophomore Justice Lovelace, who Hoffman called “a natural talent.”
Defensively, the Hawks bring back seven starters from last season and are deep in the back end with Bishop, junior Stefon Jackson-Mitchell, sophomore Aiden Burrell-Warfield and Jones at safety and juniors Jamar Thompson and Connor Koch — who moves from receiver — at the corners.
Seniors Dylan Connell, an All-SEC honorable mention pick last season, and Seth Saylor return to man the middle of the defense at linebacker, with senior and converted fullback Andy Ramos, senior Logan Heide and senior and converted offensive lineman Dreu Steinmetz playing up front.
Also along the defensive line will be junior Tyrail Beverly, a talented transfer from Georgia.
“He’s something special,” Hoffman said. “Tyrail Beverly is explosive. We could put him just about anywhere, but we’re going to have him on D-line for now.”
With the SEC down to just five teams this season — Indian Trail, Bradford, Tremper, Oak Creek and Franklin — without the three Racine schools playing due to COVID-19 concerns, it’ll be just a four-game slate for the conference.
“I wouldn’t count anybody out,” Hoffman said.
But clearly, on paper, Indian Trail and Franklin are the favorites. Last season the Hawks went 6-1 in the SEC (8-3 overall) to finish second behind Franklin, but they lost handily to the Sabers twice, scoring just seven total points.
The Hawks and Sabers meet in Week 2, next Friday at Franklin, but in this shortest of schedules, every week is a season.
“We’ve got a one-week season, every week,” Hoffman said.