‘Most rewarding year of my career’

Center Grove, Moore cap rewarding season with third consecutive state football title

By Mark Ambrogi

Eric Moore has built a storied high school football coaching career at Center Grove, but this season might be the topper.

“This was maybe the most rewarding year of my career,” Moore said. “The (previous) two years our teams have been the best in the country I think, but a lot of that stems from great DNA athletes. We should have been that good. We didn’t change our mindset this season. Every Thursday night, I stood up in front of them and said we still have everything in front of us. We accomplished everything on our goal board except being undefeated.

Center Grove captured their third consecutive IHSAA Class 6A state championship with a 35-9 rout of Carroll (Fort Wayne) Nov. 25 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Trojans finished 12-2, with its only two losses to Louisville (Ky.) Trinity and Cathedral. Center Grove avenged the regular season loss to Cathedral by beating the Irish 33-10 in the semistate. Center Grove was 14-0 in 2020 and 2021 en route to 6A state titles. This was the team’s fourth straight state championship game as Center Grove lost to Carmel in 2019. The state title was Center Grove’s fifth overall, also winning in 5A in 2008 and 6A in 2015. A sixth class was added for the largest schools in 2013.

Eli Hohlt runs into the end zone to serve Center Grove’s final touchdown of the night. (Photo by Maddi Sponsel)

The comeback

“It was super special for all the guys,” junior quarterback Tyler Cherry said. “At the beginning of the year many people didn’t count on us as one of the state contenders after losing so many great players. I think that is what has made it so much more special.”

After Carroll took a 3-0 lead in the final, Center Grove scored 35 unanswered points. Cherry threw for 137 yards and rushed for a 1-yard touchdown. Trojans senior Micah Coyle rushed for 132 yards on 26 carries, including a 1-yard yard TD run. Senior Jalen Thomeson gained 128 yards on 20 attempts. He also caught a 64-yard TD pass.

The Trojans’ other touchdowns came on a 6-yard run by senior Eli Hohlt and a 1-yard run by junior Owen Bright.

Coyle rushed for 2,073 rushing yards and 22 TDs for the season, followed by Thomeson with 1,082 yards.

Cherry, who threw for 2, 261 yards and 22 TDs, said he continued to gain confidence during the season.

Jalen Thomeson (#1) completes a 64-yard TD catch and run (from Tyler Cherry) to give Center Grove the early 6-3 lead during the IHSAA Class 6A state title game at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Photos by Double Edge Media for the IHSAA.)

Keep calm and carry on

“I also feel like I kept getting more calm as the season went on,” he said.

Moore said players took advantage of the opportunity.

“We had several kids that started every game that were third-team players last year and didn’t even get on the field,” Moore said. “They were seniors, but they didn’t have great experience.”

Moore said many of those seniors stepped up and had a great season.

Moore said one of the top returning starters, senior running back Drew Wheat, suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener. Wheat rushed for 1,003 yards and 13 TDs as a junior.

The only senior who is committed to a Football Bowl Subdivision team is Thomeson, who has committed to Ohio University.

Bright, who started at linebacker, was the team’s leading tackler with 75.

“It’s so special, for the seniors, and really for everyone involved,” Bright said. “We pour so much time and effort into every day that we spend together. I believe every person on the team gave everything they had every day, in order to three-peat. The key to the postseason run was to play Center Grove football. Don’t beat ourselves.”

The Center Grove football team runs onto the field prior to their IHSAA Class 6A title game against Fort Wayne Carroll at Lucas Oil Stadium.

A win for ‘the greatest coach’

While Moore’s focus is on the players, many of the players wanted to win it for their 61-year-old coach, who has been battling bladder cancer.

“Coach Moore is the greatest coach to ever live,” Bright said. “No one gets you going like he can. To get this three-peat for him, knowing the circumstances, was definitely a driving factor to everyone’s motivation towards the season.”

Moore said he tells the players that he just wants their respect, and they will have his respect.

“I love all these kids,” he said. “These seniors have just finished four 17-week seasons in a row. They’ve not had a Thanksgiving break or a fall break. All those Saturday mornings and Friday nights they give up. It’s a lot in today’s society. I told them all year they could make a legacy for themselves. They did it.”

Moore said he plans to return to coach one more season.

“After that, there are no guarantees,” he said. “I can’t guarantee next year because I have some (medical) procedures coming up. It’s going to have to be a month-by-month thing. I like this team coming back. I think it’s maybe a team that could get back (to the state finals). Who knows?”

Center Grove head coach Eric Moore celebrates the school’s state record third straight Class 6A football championship after defeating Carroll High School, 35-9, at Lucas Oil Stadium.

A legacy of success

The key to Center Grove’s success is consistency at all levels.

“It all started in 2000 when we had success by getting to state championship, I think people started to believe we could be a team that could compete with the best teams in the biggest class every year,” said Center Grove coach Eric Moore, whose 2000 team lost to Penn in the Class 5A state title game.

Moore, who became coach in 1999, said the second through sixth grade program is so strong in implementing the offensive technique (Wing T) and teaching kids how to block and tackle correctly.

“Now that bantam level is led by former players or dads of former players,” Moore said. “A lot of programs fail because no one is on the same page. Everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

Moore said it carries into the middle school program with several of his former players coaching.

“It’s the trickle up theory that you get kids involved in your program at a young age and they want to play for Center Grove,” Moore said.

Moore said sophomore Dallas Johnson Jr. played on special teams in this year’s state title game. His father, Dallas Johnson Sr., played in the 2000 state final for the Trojans.

“It’s come full circle for me,” Moore said. “My goal was to stay here and develop a really good program that people can appreciate and enjoy. It’s a bit of a circus atmosphere (on Friday nights). It’s the only show in town. It’s important for people to come to a high school football game and appreciate the talent of the young kids and the hard work they put in and the great coaches that coach.”

Owen Bright (#8) dives in for a touchdown from the 1-yard line to give the Trojans a 20-3 second quarter lead over Carroll High School in the IHSAA Class 6A state title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.