By Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Hennessey’s head coach and starting quarterback are different for this year’s postseason run, but the two-time defending 2A state champions’ expectations haven’t changed.
And neither has the preparation.
“We’re not doing anything different,” said first-year head coach Rick Luetjen. “We’re running the same type of practice, doing the same type of stuff on both sides of the football. Nothing’s changed.”
Luetjen, who was an assistant on departed skipper Shannon Watford’s staff, has led the Eagles to an 8-2 regular season and a chance at winning a third-straight state 2A title. Hennesey’s latest championship quest starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday against visiting Crooked Oak (4-6).
“I feel pretty good,” Luetjen said. “We might be a little behind starting off going into the playoffs, but at this point of the season, we’re really starting to come together on both sides of the football really well. Our young guys that we started the season off with are a lot more experienced now, and they’re starting to learn and understand the thing that we’re doing and starting to fill their roles now and getting us back to that point where we need to be going into the playoffs.”
Perhaps chief among those improving players is Dylan Hatchel. The Hennessey junior spent most of his first two years on the defensive side of the ball before taking the reigns of the passing game as the Eagles’ starting quarterback this season.
After throwing each of his seven interceptions in the Eagles’ first six games, Hatchel has only completed passes to his own team in Hennessey’s final four, including two scores each in wins against Newkirk, Tonkawa and Alva.
“He had some rough nights early on in the season, and some turnovers, and some bad decisions, but he’s really came back the last four or five weeks,” Luetjen said. “He’s making better reads and doing a lot better job for us at quarterback.”
“Things have slowed down a lot,” Hatchel said. “At the beginning, it seemed really, really fast. It was my first go-round at quarterback to start, and everything just seemed to be moving really, really fast.”
Hatchel, who had a career-high 147 quarterback rating after completing seven of nine passes for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Eagles’ finale Friday against Alva, said he’s already prepared for life as a postseason signal caller.
“I played (in the playoffs) on defense the last two years, so I’ve got a feel for it,” he said. “You’ve got to play a different game. You’ve got to think different. You’ve really got to think through the game. When you step up to the line, you’ve got to know what’s going on.”
That includes keeping an eye out for a ball-hawking Crooked Oak safety rotation, which Luetjen tabbed the Ruf-Nex’s defensive lynchpin.
“They run a 4-3 up front, but their safeties are their best skill players that they’ll put back there,” Luetjen said. “They’ll mix it up and get in the running game, and they’re very good in coverage. If you put a ball up there and it’s not where it needs to be, they’ll go find it.”
Keeping the Crooked Oak defense — safeties included — guessing is the Eagles’ consistent ground game led by senior running back Levi Hill.
Hill, who carried the ball 175 times for 1,393 yards and 21 scores during the regular season, enters his final postseason with an outside shot at Hennessey’s all-time rushing title.
Not that he’s too concerned.
“Records, they don’t really mean anything,” Hill said. “But as a team, winning the state championship again would be amazing.”
Hill’s not the only one with that approach.
“When you’ve made the run we have for the last four or five years now, kids kind of get that mentality of, ‘let’s get through the season so we can get to the playoffs,’” Luetjen said. “They all understand that, between your district games and your playoff games, that’s when you decide what kind of season you have.
“This is the time of year where I think they pick it up a little bit. They realize what’s at stake: You lose and you go home.”