Big Blue seek happy homecoming against resurgent Princeton

Hamilton’s Gage Retherford carries the ball during their game against Lakota East last Friday at East. The host Thunderhawks won 31-28. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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Hamilton’s Gage Retherford carries the ball during their game against Lakota East last Friday at East. The host Thunderhawks won 31-28. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Chad Murphy knows that homecoming can be a two-edged sword for a prep football team.

On one hand, it can push the incentive meter up a notch or two. After all, who wants to let the alumni down?

On the other hand?

“Also entailed in that is a lot of distractions, but that’s everywhere,” Murphy said Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve got to do a good job of staying focused.”

Murphy’s Hamilton Big Blue squad hosts Princeton on Friday in a Greater Miami Conference game that doubles as Hamilton’s homecoming contest.

The Big Blue (3-3, 0-3) still are searching for their first conference win after opening the season with three nonconference wins. First-year Princeton coach Pat McLaughlin believes Hamilton is better than its record, especially with senior quarterback Eric Jackson running the offense and junior nose guard Jason Smith sparking the defense.

Jackson ranks fifth in the GMC with 1,023 passing yards, almost half of them to senior Vince Sanford, who is ranked second in the conference with 498 receiving yards.

“First of all, Coach Murphy does a very good job,” McLaughlin said. “They’re well-coached. Their quarterback has a ton of carries. Between his throws and his carries, he has about 250-260 touches, so we’ve got to stop him. That’s probably an area of concern.

“They have a very aggressive defense. I’m not sure of his name, but that No. 7 (the 6-foot, 300-pound Smith) is a huge body. It takes two guys to block him. Their linebackers can run and their secondary is athletic.

“I don’t see a lot of weaknesses on their team. They played some very good teams. They’re 3-3, but they could be 5-1.

“First and foremost, we’ve got to stop the run. That’s probably the same every week. We’ve got to prevent the big play. We’ve got to get everybody playing together.”

The Vikings’ only loss was to Colerain, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Division I state poll, by a 38-7 score. But they still have enough credibility to be ranked eighth in the AP’s D-II poll.

Senior quarterback Solomon Reed is just ahead of Jackson in the GMC rankings with 1,057 passing yards. His favorite target is senior wide receiver C.J. Henderson, who is third in the conference with 484 receiving yards.

The Vikings’ defense is led by senior defensive backs Raymond Kozlowski and Terrance Smith, who have three interceptions each, part of a pass defense that’s allowed an GMC-best average of 112.3 passing yards per game.

Princeton leads the GMC with an average of 30.3 points per game, but ranks last while allowing an average of 255.2 rushing yards per game.

“They’ve done enough to win five games,” Murphy said. “They’re pretty athletic.”

Princeton already has matched its total number of overall and GMC wins from the past two seasons combined. What’s been McLaughlin’s most pleasant surprise?

“That’s a very good question,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but the overall chemistry has been good. Our senior leadership has been good.”

McLaughlin, previously an assistant at Moeller and Reading’s head coach before taking the Princeton job, was finding few surprises in his first go-round through the GMC.

“When I was with Moeller, we played Lakota West and Colerain in the playoffs,” he said. “This is one of the top leagues in the state. There’s no easy week, no matter who you’re playing. You’ve got to come out with the same intensity every week, or it’s not going to be pleasant on Friday night.”

McLaughlin considers himself lucky to not be saddled with an overwhelming number of injuries at this stage of the season.

“Like everybody else, we have some bumps and bruises,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of depth coming in, so we’re trying to create depth on the move. We’re trying to stay healthy, but this league is physical. For Week 7, we’re about as healthy as we can be.”

Hamilton is similarly healthy, Murphy said, allowing the coaches to focus on getting the team off to better starts. Early deficits have been a Big Blue problem, including last Friday’s 21-0 deficit against Lakota East in a 31-28 loss.

“We’re trying to focus on starting fast,” he said.

That could help enhance the whole homecoming weekend.

“We always tell them, ‘One of the best ways to enjoy that homecoming dance is to win the game,’ ” Murphy said.

Friday’s game

What: Princeton (5-1, 2-1 GMC) at Hamilton (3-3, 0-3 GMC), 7 p.m.

Where: Virgil Schwarm Stadium, 1165 Eaton Ave., Hamilton

Last meeting: Hamilton won 20-16 in 2015