Sports Talk With Mark Morrow

In his first year coaching East Central High School football, Justin Roden probably felt like he had been blindsided and plowed over during a blocking drill.

He went from an assistant to head coach quicker than was expected, and then lost his job rather quickly after that season.

“My first year running the program, the head coach just upped and quit, even though the plan was that he would coach 2 more years. The majority of staff quit, just walked away….just ran for the hills. The middle school was in a bad place and they knew what was coming,’’ said the second-year Noblesville football coach.

And we had graduated 21 of 22 starters in 2012. Then the one returnee tore his ACL during our first practice,’’ said the second-year Noblesville High School football coach.

“I was called in by the principal and athletic director. Under the circumstances, I told them I thought a 4-7 record was pretty good. They looked me in the eye and told me it was not good enough.

It was the school’s first losing season in 23 years.

“They told me that you don’t lose at East Central. “It cost me my job, and I had to find a way to take that 4-7 and turn it into something. And I’m a likeable, a California transplant, and the people really seemed to like me. I just worked hard and eventually got my job back in my third year there.’’

It didn’t take Roden long to put East Central on the state football map. He lost to Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger in 2015, finishing as the state runner-up in Class 4A. In 2017, he presented the school its second — and first since 1994 — state football championship plaque.

Then Roden told his wife he was getting bored. “And she thought I was crazy,’’ he said with a chuckle. “For me, though, I wanted to do something different.’’

He said he just felt like he had driven “this car as far as it would go . . .  “I felt like there was more for me to do . . . and, yes, I guess you could say I needed a challenge . . .that’s the best way to put it . . . a challenge.’’

Welcome to Noblesville, coach!

And, yes, welcome to another challenge.

Your biggest challenge? “Absolutely,’’ he said.

The Millers have not savored a winning season in 18 years, not since 2001 . . . and they last won a sectional in 2000.

“I get it….the losing seasons, and how our community wants to see us win. None of us want losing to continue, and we’re working hard to end it,’’ Roden said.

“I knew about this when I accepted the position. I’ve heard from others that Noblesville football was ‘soft’. Even people who didn’t know much about the program knew that football here has been ‘soft’. That has to change. So, yeah, I knew this would be challenging.

“We were so close to winning, getting it done, stopping the losing last season.’’

“We beat Fishers, HSE and Westfield for the first time ever in the same season.

Many kids here have grown up losers in football, so beating those guys helps establish this program and gives kids confidence. I keep driving into the kids that they are capable of beating those teams. I think they now believe they can compete with them. That’s important.’’

The Millers were also 4-3 at one point, following losses to Cathedral and Carmel.

Cathedral pays a visit in the Aug. 23 opener, and the Millers are at Carmel on Aug. 30.

Not exactly an enviable way to start the season.

Fishers comes to Beaver Materials Field (used to be called Hare Field) on Sept. 6.

That Game 3 of the 2018 season at Fishers was a big victory . . . A big moment, for sure!

“We also finished third in our conference. Some people thought that was a great accomplishment, that we were headed in the right direction. I appreciated the comments, but we want more and we need to get better to get it. We had a chance to finish even higher. It just didn’t work out.’’

“When I took the job I saw things that I liked, such as one of the best weight rooms in the country. Still, we’ll miss veteran strength coach Brian Clarke. He left to pursue other opportunities . . . and that an immediate search for his replacement is under way.’’

Roden added: I believe his departure is going to be a tremendous loss and his replacement has big shoes to fill.” 

Roden, now 51-26 and in his seventh season as a head coach, said that instilling a winning culture is of the upmost importance.

“You can talk about it, but you’ve got to do it if you are going to be successful. It includes having fans in the stands all the time supporting us, not just coming to games against some of the top teams we play.

“And when I say that I don’t mean to sound like we are not supported. Really, the community is awesome; they really sold my wife and my kids on this area. The people are good people. The community and football have to be together. There’s potential here for everyone to be all in for football.

“And I believe in all coaches supporting other sports in our school. That sends a positive message of unity.’’

And winning on a consistent basis would send a positive message to the Millers and their fans.

It’s hard to be positive when you are losing. And losing has been a big gorilla on the Millers’ backs. It seems probable that most times past teams have gone into games where they were expected to lose. It’s an atmosphere that’s pretty much all they’ve known for a long time.

“You can’t have players thinking that way . . .  no, not deep down,’’ Roden said. “But when you are losing it’s hard . . . but the players just have to keep battling and working to get better and to make things better.’’

Roden said he saw film on the Noblesville team in a 1-9 season two years ago, and he thought the players quit on previous coach Jason Simmons, whom later was named head coach at Ben Davis.

Roden said that was not a 1-9 team.

“Our kids need to play a style of ‘football-tough’ all the time. Last year they played hard, battled all the time. They didn’t quit, so that was quite positive. But we had some missed opportunities, and we let a chance for a winning season slip away. We had some big wins, but not enough.

“We led Brownsburg and Avon (both top-tier programs) at halftime in our final two HCC games. We just ran out of gas. We just have to learn to finish. We lost to Lafayette Jeff in the sectional opener. I really wanted a chance to play Carmel again. So, yes, that just added to the disappointment as to the way things ended.’’

Noblesville has had a pretty good summer of competition, though Roden says they’re young and he’s not settled on a quarterback.

In 7-on-7 competition early on, they defeated both Ben Davis and Warren Central. Roden credits his defensive backs and their ability to keep everything in front of them.

One returning key player that the coach mentioned is offensive lineman Cam Knight, who has verbally committed to IU. His brother Brandon is a former Noblesville and IU standout.

Roden said the defensive line is a concern, “and right now we’re not a good football team. Our freshman class was not very talented last year. We have a lot of work to do, and our players need to get stronger. It’s a ‘time’ thing’…. we know where we want to go; we’re just not there yet. Again, it’s going to take time.’’

He’s a firm believer in playing physical football and being able to control the football.

“We spread the offense a little more than I anticipated doing last year, though we did have a core of some pretty good senior (skill) players,’’ he said. “Now, we’ll need to tighten things up and use every second of the clock that we can, and keep the ball as long as possible and limit possessions.’’

He said he’s pleased with his coaching hires.

“I really feel good about our coaches,’’ he said. “They’ll also be important helping us with our youth. That’s an area that needs a lot of help, much work.

Our Noblesville Elementary Football League program has got to get better. The grass roots approach is so important. Right now, we’re not very good. We’re looking to get the coaching staff more involved in their development. It’s important that our coaches can concentrate on our middle school and youth teams. Our Grinders had a pretty good season last year, but we still need to put out a better product.

“We want these kids to get better, have a good time, and not get discouraged. We want to keep kids in the program and have them not walk away. All kids have a role and purpose on our teams, even if they aren’t starters. But each kid has to believe in what they are doing, and want to stay with the program.’’

I liked Roden’s honesty, passion and determination. He was certainly straight forward in his comments.

And, yes, he was also quite likable.

His sense of humor and the way he rolled his eyes when he talked about opening against Cathedral and then Carmel was a light-hearted moment.

He also talked about rivals. In one breath he said, “Why did they take Hamilton Heights off our schedule?

And in another breath, followed with: “I’d like to play Guerin Catholic, too. I mean, another Noblesville school . . . That would be a good thing.’’

Yep, two Noblesville schools would undoubtedly draw a spirited crowd and a big gate!

*—Mark Morrow, a Hall of Fame Indiana sportswriter, has resided in Hamilton County since 1989. You can follow him in The Times, and on Twitter at mmediamarko12. He can be reached at mediamarko5@gmail.com or by calling 317 460-8018.