TROY — Escaping a brutal schedule as an independent by joining a new league. Welcoming back a legendary coach.
The future looks bright for Troy Christian football.
There are still obstacles before getting there, though — including a pandemic that is threatening to affect the upcoming fall season — and the Eagles had plenty of them to clear during the 2019 season to get to where they are now, facing off against a host of playoff-caliber teams in posting a 4-6 record.
It was the first season as head coach for Jeff Weaver, who took over for a successful coach in Ryan Jones before he left for Versailles. In 2018, the Eagles had gone 8-2 and narrowly missed the playoffs.
“You’re a little nervous when you first take over,” Weaver said before the start of the 2019 campaign. “You’re not sure how things are going to look. But once you get out there and start doing it, it calms your nerves a little bit. It’s just football, like it’s always been. Once you get rolling … you can get to work.”
Unfortunately, that work was a tall order during the first half of the season.
Troy Christian opened up with rival Dayton Christian at home, another playoff contender from the previous season and the first of a whopping five postseason qualifiers that the Eagles would lose to in 2019. The Warriors built a 29-0 lead by halftime, and though the Eagles kept the mercy rule from being enforced, they still fell 29-6.
Next up was a road game at McComb, 2018’s Division VII state champion. Nathan Waltz scored both of the Eagles’ touchdowns in the game, but Troy Christian simply couldn’t slow down the Panthers, who racked up 556 yards of offense in a 44-16 win.
Troy Christian showed signs of life in Week 3 back at home against Northridge, jumping out to a 16-0 lead early on two touchdown passes from Ethan Twiss to Waltz. Another touchdown by Waltz had the Eagles up 22-16 heading into the final quarter, but the Polar Bears simply had more left in the tank, scoring the game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line in the game’s final minute to claim a 28-22 victory. It was the only loss by the Eagles that did not come at the hands of a playoff team, as Northridge finished the year 6-4.
“This was a tough loss, but hopefully it will be a learning experience for us,” Weaver said. “We’re just not there yet. We’ve got to learn to get over the hump.”
One more road loss to yet another playoff team — the eventual D-VII state runner-up, Lucas — stood in the Eagles’ way before they began to see real progress. After falling to the Cubs 43-0 for its fourth straight loss to start the season, Troy Christian returned home to take on Meadowdale, with injuries to Waltz and running back Jason Blake hampering the team, to boot. But Charlie Knostman had four touchdowns and Twiss returned an interception for a score, and the Eagles won in a blowout, 44-6, to close out the first half of the season.
The Eagles kept that momentum going for a while, kicking off the second half of the season under the lights at Welcome Stadium with a 26-12 victory over Ponitz. Quarterback Twiss scored three rushing touchdowns and Knostman added an insurance score in the second half. The Eagles then drained the final 9:12 off the clock on its final possession to finish off the win.
“We have about a third of our team out with injuries right now. We have 32 kids on the team and about 12 or 13 kids injured,” Weaver said after the game. “It was phenomenal. They just fought.”
Troy Christian won two more in a row, taking care of Jefferson on the road 38-8 and then shutting out Hillcrest Academy at home 56-0 to even its record at 4-4 on the season. But next up was Lima Central Catholic — the team that cost the Eagles a playoff berth the previous year in a Week 9 loss — and the Thunderbirds coasted to a 70-0 victory to end Troy Christian’s four-game winning streak. The Eagles then finished the season with a 62-32 Week 10 loss at Fisher Catholic to go 4-6 on the year.
All told, the combined record of the teams that beat Troy Christian was 51-18 as Lucas went 12-3, LCC went 9-2, Dayton Christian, McComb and Fisher Catholic were all 8-3 and Northridge was 6-4.
And while the Eagles have one more season to go as an independent before helping to form the new Three Rivers Conference in fall of 2021, they will welcome back Steve Nolan as head coach. Nolan, who coached at Troy High School for 28 years until 2011 and then at Troy Christian from 2013-15, has returned to coach the team again in 2020.
“I never lost touch with the game. I’ve helped some other teams, and there’s some people at Troy Christian that were there the first time that I’ve stayed in contact with,” Nolan said when he announced his comeback in January. They’re in a situation where they’re going into a new league soon, and there’s some issues that I’m more familiar with that I think I can help them with. I’m excited to get back and do some of those things.”