Despite youth, Trojans boast experience

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MENDOTA – Spring football is usually reserved for colleges and the pros to assess their talent for the fall season when games matter. This year, spring football will be a part of high schools in the state of Illinois.

After the pandemic canceled the 2020 fall season, everyone waited for months to see if a football season of any type could be played in the 2020-21 school year. Much to the delight of players and coaches, the IHSA gave the green light for a season back in January and high schools have been preparing for their first games, which were allowed to begin on March 19.

For the Mendota Trojans, they will kick off the campaign on Saturday, March 27 when they travel to Poplar Grove to take on North Boone at 2 p.m. Mendota will play a five-game schedule, with home games slated for Friday, April 2 against Oregon and Friday, April 23 against Genoa-Kingston. Both contests start at 7 p.m.

“It is different not being the sport that kicks off the athletic calendar,” said Mendota coach Keegan Hill, who begins his third year at the helm of the Trojans. “Getting to the season without any additional rescheduling is refreshing for everyone involved. We have a very similar timeline to a traditional Fall season in terms of number of practices together.”

The Trojans will be a junior-dominated team, but some of those juniors gained varsity experience as sophomores during the 2019 campaign.

“Having multiple players gain varsity experience last year is important and we can build on it,” stated Hill. “The uncertainty of playing at the varsity level is a real thing and our players can have confidence in knowing that they have been there before and expect to improve their performance.”

Junior Ted Landgraf is one of those players that participated on the varsity squad as a sophomore in 2019, starting all nine games at quarterback. He completed 38 passes for 522 yards and also ran for 242 yards and six touchdowns.

“As with any player or coach in our program, we expect our play to improve,” Hill noted. “Ted is a smart player that understands that and knows how we feel about his skills and abilities. He expects to continue to grow into the position and the role of QB in our offense.”

An area of inexperience will be at the other skill positions on offense. Senior Andres Castaneda returns for a third varsity season at wide receiver (12 receptions, 205 yards, 3 TDs in 2019), but after him, the experience level drops off. Hill named juniors Emilio Perez, Uzi Angulo, Damien Magallanes and John Gonzalez as candidates for the running back position. Out of the bunch, only Angulo has much playing time at the position on the varsity level. In 2019, he carried the ball 26 times for 80 yards.

“We expect to improve our efficiency on the offensive side of the ball,” said Hill. “Executing on early downs and early in games is vital to our success as a team.”

Down in the trenches, three of the five starting offensive linemen return as juniors – Andy Rivera, Omar Gonzalez and Christian Tellez. Others vying for playing time on the line are senior Derek Nanez and juniors Sean Figueroa, Sergio Sandoval and Parker Guelde.

Hill said that multiple players will have a two-way role, including Angulo, Omar Gonzalez and others. “Their skill set and technique will be important to us improving our style of play on defense,” added Hill.

Magallanes recorded 64 tackles from the free safety position last season, while Tellez had 42 stops at linebacker and Omar Gonzalez posted 22 tackles, including four tackles for loss, on the defensive line.

Hill said he wants everyone to have a healthy experience during this unique season, where everyone grows as players, people and competitors.

“The opportunity to play this game is special and these players get to enjoy this season together, which is important,” he explained. “Our program goals for the season are to improve every game. No Ds or Fs in the program. We want to improve our speed, strength and be competitive.”