By David Fong
TROY — Conventional high school football coaching wisdom dictates that being ranked in the state polls — or any polls, for that matter — is far more a curse than a blessing.
Most coaches would rather not have that sort of target on their backs or give opposing teams that much more motivation.
Matt Burgbacher, however, is not like most high school football coaches.
So when the first Associated Press state football poll of 2016 was released Monday — and his Troy High School football team was ranked No. 8 in Division II, the highest a Troy football team has been ranked in any state poll since 2000, when it still was a Division I team — Burgbacher embraced the ranking.
“To us, it’s all a matter of perspective,” Burgbacher said. “We kind of go against the norm — we embrace the state ranking. We like the fact the media is showing respect to the Troy football program. We think a lot of it has to do with the football tradition Troy has. Troy has a lot of very good football tradition, and we know a lot of media members who have not seen us are voting for us, probably based on some of the success Troy has had in the past.”
Burgbacher knows other teams may use that state ranking as motivation to try to knock off the Trojans, but he said he and his staff can use it for motivation, as well.
“To us, it’s only a negative distraction if you let it be a negative distraction,” he said. “Instead of letting it be a negative, we are trying to turn it into a positive. This puts more positive pressure on our kids and our program. Now our kids know they have a target on their backs and they are going to get every team’s best shot. They know they have to be ready for that every week. We can only control how we play — we can’t control where anyone chooses to rank us.”
The numbers sophomore inside linebacker Shane Shoop put up in last week’s 41-36 win over Bellefontaine were impressive — 11 tackles, three quarterback sacks, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble.
Those numbers are downright staggering when one considers nearly all of them came in the second half.
Shoop did not start the game at inside linebacker, and his only tackle in the first half came on the opening kickoff. With the Trojans struggling to keep up with dynamic Chieftain quarterback Dezmin Lyburtus in the first half, however, defensive coordinator Charlie Burgbacher made the decision at halftime to put in the diminutive (5-foot-6, 174-pounds) but quick-as-a-hiccup Shoop in the game in the second half.
It was a prescient move, as Shoop spent most of the final two quarters of the game in the backfield harassing Lyburtus. After scoring 28 points in the first half, Bellefontaine scored just eight points in the second half.
“We needed that at that moment,” Burgbacher said. “He gave us that quickness we needed at that point in time. He’s not the biggest kid in the world, but his quickness really frustrated them. Plus, he’s got such great balance and change of direction. I think a lot of that comes from the fact he’s a wrestler. Wrestling is all about keeping your balance and maintaining that low center of gravity.”
Shoop will continue to be part of a rotation at the one inside linebacker spot along with senior Jacob Stewart and junior Zack Schwausch.
“A lot of it will be situational,” Matt Burgbacher said. “Shoop was what we needed at that time, based on what Bellefontaine was running. If they had lined up in double tights and tried to run the ball down our throats, we would have wanted Stewart and Schwausch in there, because they are great at handling that. So a lot of what we do will depend on what the offense is doing.”
Ray of Light
Andrew Ray played exactly one down at quarterback for the Trojans last Friday.
In that one down, however, he may have made the play of the game for the Trojans.
“He probably made the play of the year for us so far … and we’ve had some great plays,” Burgbacher said.
Midway through the third quarter with Troy trailing 28-14, the Trojans drove deep into Bellefontaine territory. On third-and-10 from the Bellefontaine 30, starting quarterback Hayden Kotwica picked up 3 yards on a quarterback keeper, but his helmet was knocked off in the process. According to Ohio High School Athletic Association rules, Kotwica then had to come out for one play.
Ray, a senior, went into the game and calmly completed a 14-yard pass to Sam Coleman to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Kotwica connected with Josh Browder on a 13-yard touchdown pass, cutting Bellefontaine’s lead to 28-20 and keeping Troy’s second-half momentum rolling.
“He threw exactly zero warm-up throws before he went into the game,” Burgbacher said of Ray. “The play before was on the other side of the field, so I couldn’t see that Kotwica’s helmet had come off. When the official came over and told me he had to come out for one play, we didn’t have time to think — we just put in Ray. He did exactly what he was supposed to do. He read the defense, identified the safeties were playing high and made the pass.
“That was such a huge play in that game. If we don’t score there, who knows what happens? That play allowed us to make it a one-score game. If we don’t score there, maybe they score again and turn it into a three-score game. That play was huge for us.”
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong