INDIANAPOLIS — Twelve coaches from seven different counties represented their respective schools in the field-level conference room during Monday’s IHSAA football state finals press conference at Lucas Oil Stadium. Three of Indiana’s 92 counties were represented by more than one school.
Four of those coaches, Cardinal Ritter’s Ty Hunt, Cathedral’s Rick Streiff, Warren Central’s Jayson West and Brebeuf Jesuit’s Mic Roessler, hail from inside Marion County, which features a population of just under a million residents. Two others, Westfield’s Jake Gilbert and Carmel’s Kevin Wright, share Hamilton County: population 290,000.
Then, there were Tipton’s Aaron Tolle and Tri-Central’s George Gilbert. Two schools separated by 8 miles. Two schools that share Tipton County’s 16,000 residents, a county which ranks 80th in the state in total polulation.
State finals schools sharing home counties is not uncommon, but few would argue how remarkable it is for a county like Tipton, one of Indiana’s most sparsely populated counties with just two high schools.
The two schools, otherwise rivals, don’t play in the same class or the same sectional. They don’t play each other in football, leaving it safe to jump on one another’s bandwagon as both will represent their schools in the state finals this weekend.
“This is almost unheard of. It’s really unbelievable,” Gilbert said. “We have a really good relationship, I believe, with Tipton. When we played [a regular-season game] at Lucas [Oil Stadium] last year, we had a lot of Tipton people come down here and support us. I think it’s a wonderful bond. I don’t think you have to be so selfish or arrogant that you want to keep your program high and want everyone else’s down low. One thing we should want as coaches is for everyone to rise up.”
Gilbert has certainly helped Tri-Central rise up. Coming over from Clinton Central in 2009, Gilbert has guided the Trojans from the depths of 0-10 to what the program is savoring now, a 13-1 mark ahead of Friday’s Class A state championship game against Eastern Hancock, the only team to hand TC a loss this season.
Gilbert was quick deflect the credit, calling his current coaching staff the “finest he’s ever had,” a staff that includes former TC players Memo Perez and Jason Tolle.
“And that’s really saying something for me because I had great staffs over at Clinton Central,” he said. “I was the enemy [at TC]. I came over to this school having beat them 82-6 a few years earlier in a game that got out of hand. It’s really been crazy, and in the beginning some of the parents weren’t sure if they wanted me because I was a run guy. They were used to passing guys. We started running the football and we started winning. We started throwing the ball and we starting winning some more. Now, we have a nice mix, and the community has been really receptive to the change. They have treated our staff really well.”
As for community support, both coaches couldn’t be happier. Gilbert raved of the way TC patrons have gotten on board. He’s seen the fellowship in and around Sharpsville develop around football in a way many in the small town would’ve never expected.
“There are people at Tri-Central that I don’t know at all, but you can’t get down the street or go to a store without people talking to you about how excited they are,” he said. “What’s really crazy, to add on to that, the Tipton people are just as nuts about Tri-Central football as we are, and the TC people are just as supportive towards Tipton. This is really a magical year for Tipton County.”
Tolle sees just one problem — the squads won’t play at Lucas Oil on the same day. Tri-Central’s state finals game is slated for Friday at noon. Tipton (11-3) will take on Ritter in the Class 2A game 24 hours later.
“The only thing I wish is we could be playing back-to-back games. I think it would be phenomenal if they played in the 1A game and we turned around and played in the 2A game,” he said. “Either way, it’s a major feather in the cap for both schools and communities. It’s a great thing to have when you only have two schools in your county and they’re two of the 12 playing in the state finals. It’s a great thing for the entire community. I’m very happy for coach Gilbert and Tri-Central.”
Tolle attended Tipton schools and played football for his father, Mike, before becoming an assistant coach on the staff and eventually the head coach. Aaron rarely goes anywhere without a congratulatory pat on the back, or at the very least, the conversation turning to Blue Devil football. He feels blessed to be able to give back to the community in his current role.
“It’s a dream come true, no doubt,” he said. “[Athletic Director Kory] Fernung and I were talking just the other day about how fortunate we are at our school to have the successes we’ve had. But yet, over the last few years, we’re one of the only, if not the only school, in the area that hasn’t had a state finals appearance [in a revenue sport]. We’ve been outstanding in multiple sports on both sides, boys and girls, and in a lot of instances came up one game short. So, for us to be able to do that is very exciting for me, because Tipton High School is very important to me. Hopefully this can be the first of many as far as our school is concerned.”