By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
---- — On paper, No. 8-ranked Tri-Central is a heavy favorite against Clinton Prairie in tonight’s Class A Sectional 44 final. The Trojans are 10-1 while the Gophers are 5-6. Plus, the Trojans crushed the Gophers 54-0 in Hoosier Heartland Conference play during Week 4 of the regular season.
Of course, No. 2-ranked North Vermillion was a heavy favorite against Attica in a Class A Sectional 47 semifinal game last week. North Vermillion was undefeated and had beaten Attica 52-16 during Week 6 of the regular season. What happened in the rematch? Attica pulled off a 13-7 upset.
“We definitely aren’t looking past [Prairie]. You look at North Vermillion and Martinsville, both those teams had huge victories during the year [over sectional opponents] and then got beat in the tournament. You just never know in the tournament,” Gilbert said. “Obviously it’s a better position to be in when you had success against a team, but you just have to go out and go to work and that’s what we plan to do.”
Tri-Central is shooting for its second sectional title and first since 1991.
TC stormed into the sectional final by whipping nine-time Class A state champion Sheridan 35-7 last week.
“I think we played about as near-perfect game as we could for a high school football team. We didn’t have any fumbles, we had very few penalties, we moved the ball well and our defense played just outstanding,” Gilbert said. “Sheridan is an awfully good team. Their [5-6] record doesn’t indicate it, but you have to look at who they’ve played, and in Class A they are very good.”
Clinton Prairie endured a six-game losing streak during the regular season. The Gophers have followed with four straight wins, including wins over Indiana Deaf (43-6) and Indianapolis Shortridge (52-50) in sectional play.
“As we are jelling right now, so is Clinton Prairie,” Gilbert said. “Offensively, they’ve averaged around 40 points a game the last four weeks. Thjeir fullback [junior Nik Royer] is about a 255-pound kid and we haven’t played against anybody that size. He got hurt [in the first quarter] the last time we played them. He has been on a roll for them.
“They have good speed in the backfield and they like to get to the corner and throw. They’re going to offer us a challenge, but we hope our speed does all right.”
The Trojans have a stingy defense that is holding opponents to just 12.3 points per game. The Trojans posted four shutouts during the regular season and have allowed just 13 points over two sectional games.
Gilbert credits defensive coordinator Memo Perez for his work. Perez brought a 3-4 defense to TC four years ago and the Trojans gradually built to this point.
“He does a wonderful job,” Gilbert said. “We have some outstanding kids playing defense. I would have to say Darius Stanley is leading the way. I think he has to be one of the best defensive and offensive linemen in the state.”
Stanley is a four-year starter. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound senior mans a tackle spot. He tops the team in solo tackles (31), QB sacks (six) and tackles for loss (18).
Senior linebacker Seth Blunck leads TC’s defensive points chart. Junior cornerback Cody Howell has a school-record eight interceptions.
Howell is the QB on offense. He has completed 70 of 121 pass attempts (58 percent) for 1,229 yards. He has thrown 21 TD passes — and only three interceptions.
Blunck, senior Jade Pickett and junior Bryce Dowell lead the receiving corps. They have combined for 17 TD receptions. Senior Garrett Kelley is the go-to guy on the ground. He has rushed for 1,370 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averages 7 yards per carry.
Gilbert loves what he has seen from his squad in practice this week. The Trojans have won 10 straight games and are hungry for more.
“I think when we entered the tournament series, our kids really started pulling together even more so than what they had during the season as far as their preparation, and this week has just been outstanding. We run from the time we get together at 3:25 and don’t stop until 6 o’clock and they really responded well,” he said.
Gilbert owns a 26-5 career record against Clinton Prairie. He went 23-2 against the Gophers in 19 seasons as Clinton Central’s coach, and is 3-3 against the Gophers in five seasons at TC.
SECTIONAL 44 FINAL • MATCHUP: Clinton Prairie (5-6) at Tri-Central (10-1) • TIME: 7 p.m.