The bell is tolling loudly at Homestead.
Two straight years have seen the Spartans capture the SAC’s storied Victory Bell as the conference champions and there is no interest in letting that grip go in 2021.
Many familiar faces are gone from the Spartan lineup, but that doesn’t mean that this program lacks the capability to reload yet again. They have done it consistently, so while the faces change, the pace and culture of the championship program shouldn’t take too much of a hit, if any.
Homestead will hand the keys over to junior Peyton Slaven at the quarterback position and see if he can deliver the big numbers that the Spartans are always counting on. He will replace the 2,587 passing yards that graduated with Evan Ormbsy, but is coming off a really strong summer slinging the ball. Slaven becomes Homestead’s third different starting quarterback in three years but there is a a tradition now of throwing for 2,500-plus yards and he has shown that he is likely capable of doing the same, especially with a speedy receiving group.
The Spartans do have options and depth at QB though, which is always nice, including 6-foot-3 senior Grady Swing and freshman Jimmy Sullivan.
Swing will also get to help a receiving corps that returns over 1,400 yards, led by all-everything Nate Anderson. Last season, Anderson was arguably the best breakout player in all of northeast Indiana on his way to All-State honors. Not only was Anderson target No. 1 last season with 49 catches, he averaged 23.1 yards per reception and over 100 yards per game in 2020 because of his breakaway speed and playmaking ability. He will be joined out wide by Swing, Zac Zolman and Gage Sparrow (28 catches, 343 yards).
Expect a hoard of new-look Spartans to line up in the slot as well, with juniors Mason Auxier and Gavin Cozad and sophomore Brett Fuchs all slated to get some time.
For that aerial attack to really work out, the Spartans will have to have balance with a running game that is without their top three rushers from a season ago, including Braeden Hardwick (965 yards). Desmond Smith Jr. and Cam Berger will look to fill that hole, though Berger carried just seven times in 2020 and Smith accounting for zero offensive yardage last season. Sophomore Kam Johnson will also get some carries.
That offense, new and old, will all benefit from having three starters back on the offensive line to open things up. Center Carter Hull is back for his senior year and will be joined by fellow seniors Jaden Abulhalkah and Nick Schweizer, who will both play tackle. A pair of juniors will jump in at the guard positions with 6-foot-4 Eric Williamson and Owen Rupnow slated to take over those spots. Sophomore Jackson Bell could also see some time aiding this line.
Homestead will return more starters (six) on the defensive side of the ball in its 3-3 scheme, including close to the entire secondary. Smith will be one of the few guys who could see substantial time on both side of the ball after registering 40 tackles, three interceptions and five pass deflections in 2020. Back too are Austin Keezer (58 tackles, 4 deflections), Aaron Wagner (11 tackles, 3 deflections) and Isaac Barkes (49 tackles, 3 interceptions, 4 deflections).
One of two other defensive returners is stout lineman Matt Miller. The 6-foot-3 lineman was 2nd team All-SAC last year and is the only two-year starter back for the Spartans. Miller registered 33 tackles and a sack in 2020. Back too is linebacker Max Schiltz, whose 52 tackles last year ranks second among Spartan returners. Schiltz also had 1.5 sacks in 2020.
Sparty will stay big across the d-line next to Miller with 6-foot junior Jackson Christmon and 6-foot-3, 275 pound senior TJ Franklin; a pair of sophomores in Preston Haught and Arlondo Sheets will add to the line depth. The question will be who will step up and replace heavy linebacker losses. Even just the loss of Luke Palmer (113 tackles) is tough, but there is much more to replace. Seniors Kyle Koob and Jaden Matthews and junior Justin Goskowicz will step into the vacant roles. Transfer Ebon Person (73 tackles, 3.5 sacks at Wayne) could slot into a linebacker position as well; traditionally a safety, Homestead’s stout secondary will see Person move around a bit to find a role.
In most places, the kicking game doesn’t get as much attention as it does and will at Homestead. Carter Dixon has established himself as arguably the best in the area both kicking and punting. Dixon averaged 40.2 yards per punt (long of 64), 50.7 yards per kickoff and was perfect in the scoring aspect going 4/4 on field goals (long of 42 yards) and 5/5 as the second option kicking extra points.
They say to be the man, you have to beat the man. Homestead is the man in the SAC until someone derails their title hopes. It keeps them high on the list in a year that the SAC is going to be incredibly competitive. There are some really nice proven commodities on this team and guys who have experienced back-to-back SAC titles.
As important as it was for the 2019 team to be the ones to finally pull in the Victory Bell, it is equally important for this senior class to not be the ones to lose it.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
The Spartans have to replace a lot more than the teams ranked above them. That is just fact and although we’ve seen Coach Chad Zolman reload over the years, there are some important skill positions where guys really need to prove themselves the first few weeks of this season.
It will be zero shock if the Spartans can quickly climb further up the power poll in the initial weeks and it won’t really be a surprise if they successfully defend their SAC title. But for now, we need to see the goods and eagerly anticipate Homestead being able to do so once again.
September 17 vs. Snider
We look at this as a potential title eliminator game in Week 5. It is also smack dab in the middle of Homestead’s stretch of five games against arguably the other top 6 teams in the area, all in a row.
By this point, we will have learned a lot about both Homestead and Snider and there is never any love lost when these teams go to war, so expect this one to be thrilling, high scoring and full of some heavy moments.
Does it go a long way in determining the SAC? We will see about that. But even if it doesn’t, it is going to be a great game. Homestead has won the last three meetings but Snider rolled off seven straight wins before that in the series. Does the balance of power shift back or does it stay put?
Grady Swing, senior
Swing has seen some sort of responsibility for this team each of the past two seasons. He is engrained in the program and understands from guys that were above him what it takes to get to and retain a championship level of play. Everything that Swing has seen and done is going to be magnified this season, so the expectations for him to be a leader will be huge.
It also helps that Swing can do a bit of everything. We could see him at quarterback, he can run the ball if needed, he will catch the ball and it wouldn’t even be a surprise to see him in the secondary. You don’t see guys in a 6A program doing more than one or two things, so the fact that Swing can do a lot is beneficial to him and the program.