Let’s break in a new field to kick off the season, shall we?
Despite the fan experience being very limited, it is still a big deal for Columbia City and the community as the school moves away from their long-standing campus to a new one, which means saying goodbye to Max Gandy Athletic Field in exchange for some new digs.
Week 1 has some good matchups across the area and some that have changed within the last week or so as well. But this one has held steady with two programs that are always solid meeting for the first time ever in their current configurations and first time overall since 1903.
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE?
Week 1 in the COVID-19 era is going to be, for the lack of a better term, weird. Limited fans in the stands are going to make some home field advantages feel weak compared to what we are used to. That is good news for the visiting team in a lot of scenarios.
Columbia City, unlike some places Friday, will have fans in attendance but that number will be minimal. Another unique part for Columbia City compared to some locales is that students will be able to attend. Participating athletes, cheerleaders and band members received four tickets each for the game with remaining tickets allotted based on Whitley County Health Department decisions going into a lottery for students.
It will be a different kind of home field atmosphere, but likely a bigger one than most schools will have on Friday
FEEL GOOD ABOUT THE NIGHT
That home field may or may not be an advantage due to the environment should still play a factor. Gone are the bumps and well worn-in callused grass of Max Gandy Field. In is the smooth, quick turf at the new Eagle Stadium.
There is always a bit of a swagger for a school in having fresh, new turf and it should be no exception for Columbia City with school starting Thursday. This new stadium and field have to push some pride into the equation and that really can make a difference. They also happen to have a giant Eagle to run out of now. Inflatables are always a game-changer.
Both schools are repped by tremendous coaches in Columbia City’s Brett Fox and Churubusco’s Paul Sade. So who can coach their situation the best on Friday night?
For Sade, it is getting a pretty new group of starters up to speed with how hard ‘Busco plays and pounds the ball on both sides of the ball. Sure, this kind of stuff has been built up since July, but game night is different. When the lights shine bright, who can Sade count on to fit in the ‘Busco mold and shine?
For Fox, it is more about keeping up the ride from a year ago. He too has some big pieces to replace – Michael Sievers in particular comes to mind, but with a good front line back, Fox’s team has the appearance that it will live up to expectations.
FOUR PLAYERS TO WATCH
Hunter Bianski, Churubusco
The leading returner on defense, Bianski recorded 7.6 tackles per game last season, had 6.5 sacks and an interception to boot. Bianski can really be a big energy guy to get a young team going and he is going to need to be about everywhere on the field to try and snuff out the Columbia City offense.
TJ Bedwell, Columbia City
One of the quickest guys on the field on Friday night, Bedwell could make a big impact on both sides of the ball. Throwing against his play in the secondary is questionable at best (team-high four interceptions in 2019) and on offense he could be the primary target for Greg Bolt as he was the top target last season with 36 catches for 519 yards, second-highest on the team.
Ayden White, Churubusco
Someone is going to have to take over the run game after the graduation of Jake Fulk and Gage Kelly and White has as good of a chance as anyone to be that guy. Just a freshman, it is hard to tell how big of an impact White will have immediately, but he showed signs of reading gaps well and bursts of speed in the scrimmage against Heritage.
Abe Barrera, Columbia City
If Columbia City wants to open up its passing game, it will need to rely on the run, which was about one-third of the offense last year. Top rusher Abe Barrera is back after rushing 89 times for 402 yards. He can provide some power to keep Churubusco’s line guessing.
KEYS TO VICTORY – CHURUBUSCO
GET TO GREGORY BOLT
Of the 17 sacks Churubusco recorded last season, just 6.5 of them are back and are all Hunter Bianski‘s. Meanwhile, Columbia City quarterback Greg Bolt has upped his elusiveness and tempo so getting to him and giving him less time to throw to new receivers is critical. Look for Nick Nondorf (50 tackles) to be another two-way guy who can get involved on a higher level defensively as Churubusco only has three defensive starters back – Bianski, Seth Abel and Brayten Gordon.
COMFORT IN A NEW GROUND GAME
Who does Paul Sade feel he has to have on the field running the ball under the Churubusco system on Friday? It could change weekly early on, but for the first Friday it will certainly be a baptism by fire.
Four offensive linemen are gone from last years team, so there is a new line to run behind and that is a big part of the equation. Depth could be crucial, instead of heavily relying on one or two guys on the ground like they did with Jake Fulk and Gage Kelly. Nondorf could again contribute here as the leading returning rusher, though with just 71 yards last season.
KEYS TO VICTORY – COLUMBIA CITY
FIND PASSING GAME DIVERSITY
As has been noted, TJ Bedwell is going to be a focus. He was the big target last year, but the Eagles still have over 1,100 receiving yards to replace. Hunter Herron, Evan Love and Garrett Geiger all caught passes last season and will help spread the passing out more. Time will tell how effective this receiving corps will be, but there are plenty of options to play with.
Coach Brett Fox will be the first one to tell you this: the Eagles’ pace wasn’t always consistent last year. They were a fast-starting team that didn’t follow through the entire running of the clock. A 14-0 lead in the first quarter wouldn’t matter if things are taken less seriously in the second quarter. Whatever pace this team can play at during their peak, they are going to need to maintain as best possible.