By David Fong
TROY — Steve Nolan wasn’t exactly a stranger to reclamation projects.
But never before had the venerable coach with the steely gaze faced anything quite like this before.
“Basically, it was like starting over,” said Nolan, who took over the Troy Christian football program in 2013. “It was like starting a program from scratch. They didn’t even know how to watch film. We literally had to teach them how to watch film after games. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before, to be honest.”
In 1984, Nolan took over a Troy program that had fallen on had times, going 0-10 two years prior. Nolan made an immediate impact, leading the Trojans to an 8-2 record his first season, then a 12-1 mark and a spot in the Division I state semifinals the next.
That, however, was different. When he took over at Troy, Nolan at least was inheriting a program with a century of winning tradition and a group of underclassmen loaded with future Division I college football players.
Taking over at Troy Christian — which Nolan did after retiring from Troy in 2011 and sitting out the 2012 season — was another matter entirely.
For starters, Nolan took over a program that didn’t exactly have Troy’s rich football tradition — both the football program and even the high school itself have been in existence for less than 20 years.
Further complicating matters was the fact the Eagles didn’t even have the numbers to field a team in 2012. The year before Nolan’s arrival, there was no football team.
Still, though, that didn’t stop Nolan and his staff from making an immediate impact. The Eagles returned to the football field in 2013, playing as an Ohio High School Athletic Association non-member against a mix of club teams, other OHSAA non-members and junior varsity programs.
Troy Christian put together a respectable season, to be sure, but the question remained whether the Eagles would be able to compete in 2014 when it made its return against a full slate of OHSAA varsity opponents.
The simple answer? Yes.
Troy Christian was back — and as strong as it ever had been — in 2014, qualifying for the postseason for the first time in a decade and winning just the second playoff game in school history. It was, by all accounts, a banner season for the Eagles.
Leading the way for Troy Christian was junior running back Luke Dillahunt, who carried the ball 237 times for 2,501 yards — an average of 10.6 yards per carry — and 29 touchdowns. He added three more touchdowns on defense and special teams. For his efforts, Dillahunt was named the Associated Press Division VII Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
“He had a great year, and certainly this is a great honor,” Nolan said. “He certainly had the numbers. You can say what you want about the level of competition, but the numbers he had were as good as anyone in the state. He’s a great running back. It’s that simple. I’ve coached a lot of great backs over the years, and he’s certainly right in that group.”
Dillahunt showed what type of season he was going to have in the very first game of the season, as he rushed for more than 200 yards and scored five touchdowns in Troy Christian’s 42-32 win over Perry in the season opener.
The Eagles would improve to 2-0 the second week of the season with a 33-12 win over Miami Valley Christian Academy. In that game, Dillahunt had 226 rushing yards and three touchdowns in just three quarters of work.
Troy Christian’s offense would struggle the next two weeks, however, scoring just 14 points in back-to-back losses to Northeastern (28-7) and Cincinnati Taft (33-7).
The Eagles got back on track in Week 5, however, as Dillahunt against topped the 200-yard mark in a 48-18 win over Clermont Northeastern. In Week 6, Lehman simply had too many weapons for Troy Christian, as the Cavaliers rolled to a 49-20 victory.
That, however, would kick start a five-game winning streak for Troy Christian, starting with a 49-0 trouncing of Jefferson in Week 7. Dillahunt carried the ball just 12 times, but racked up 175 yards and two touchdowns. Troy Christian quarterback Hayden Hartman threw a pair of touchdown passes — one to Jacob Brown and one to Isiah Fairley.
The following week, Troy Christian’s offense was gain in high gear, piling up more than 60 points in a 62-30 win over Fayetteville. Dillahunt had nearly 300 yards rushing and five touchdowns by halftime. He finished with 17 carries for 397 rushing yards — an average of 23.4 yards per carry — and seven total touchdowns, but had it not been for the OHSAA’s newly instituted running clock rule in the second half, there’s no telling how many yards he may have racked up.
“He was pretty amazing,” Troy coach Steve Nolan said of Dillahunt. “It was like you would call a play and he’d score on a 60-yard touchdown run. Then you would call another play on the next series and he’d score on a 70-yard touchdown run. He’s a great back. He’s got great breakaway speed. They didn’t have anyone who could keep up with him.”
Things would get tougher for Troy Christian the following week, as the Eagles had to gut out a 20-18 victory over Lutheran East. Dillahunt scored a pair of early touchdowns and finished with 172 rushing yards, but got dinged up and had to miss much of the second half.
Down 18-13 with 5 minutes to play in the game, Hartman hooked up with Fairley on a 35-yard touchdown strike to put Troy Christian up 20-18. The Eagle defense stopped Lutheran East on a pair of drives in the final minutes to preserve the victory.
In the final week of the regular season, Troy Christian’s defense again turned in a stellar performance, shutting out Waynesfield-Goshen in an 18-0 victory. While the defense was pitching a shut out, Dillahunt again topped the 200-yard mark, giving him more than 2,000 yards for the season.
What mattered most, however, was the fact the win clinched a playoff berth for the Eagles.
In its first playoff appearance in about a decade, Troy Christian got a rematch with Miami Valley Christian Academy, the team it beat in the second week of the season. The second time, Troy Christian’s victory was even more convincing, as the Eagles rolled to a 51-14 victory.
Dillahunt finished the night with 20 carries for 277 yards and three touchdowns, while Levi Sims added three touchdowns of his own. It was Troy Christian’s first playoff victory since 2004 and only the second overall in school history.
“This is great for these kids,” Nolan said. “I couldn’t be happier for them. They have improved every game this season. They deserve to have this feeling.”
Troy Christian’s dream season would come to an end the following week in the Division VII regional semifinals, however, as Lehman defeated the Eagles 31-0 in another regular-season rematch.
While Troy Christian returns a strong nucleus this fall — led by Dillahunt, who will return for his senior season — and things would appear to be back on track for the Eagles, several challenges also await Troy Christian.
Depth and numbers will continue to be a problem this season. Last year, the Eagles finished the year with a shade more than 20 healthy players on the roster — there won’t be a dramatic increase in numbers this season.
Also, Troy Christian beefed up its schedule by picking up six games against Cross County Conference schools — including Miami County rivals Covington and Miami East, both playoff qualifiers last season.
Considering how far the Eagles have come in such a short period of time, however, it would be hard to count them out heading into 2015.
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong