BY MARK SALUKE KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — SHARPSVILLE — Records fell. History was rewritten. And it all happened in front of a nearly packed house Friday night.
Garrett Kelley broke the school’s single-season rushing record as No. 8-ranked Tri-Central blanked Hoosier Heartland Conference rival Clinton Prairie 32-0 in the Class A Sectional 44 final as the Trojans claimed the program’s second overall sectional title and first since 1991.
The 11th straight win earned Tri-Central (11-1) a trip to South Adams (5-7) for a regional game next Friday. South Adams beat Southwood 40-39 in OT Friday.
“We’ve got 11 seniors on this team who grew up wanting this,” Kelley said. “This is huge. When we were young, Tri-Central wasn’t very good. To get to this point is crazy. Our community has been so strong behind us. It feels great to get this win.”
Kelley finished the game with 156 yards on 16 carries, averaging nearly 10 yards per tote. He finished the game with 1,526 yards for the season, passing the single-season record of 1,502 set by Austin Horn in 2012.
“Everybody thought we’d come back with no running backs this year,” TC coach George Gilbert said. “He’s a fast kid and when he gets loose, he’s off to the races.
“I’m just really pleased with where we’re at right now,” Gilbert continued. “Our crowd is just incredible. It’s great high school football at a small school.”
Kelley also had two scores on the night. The first was a game-changer that brought the fans to a roar.
The Trojans were nursing a 12-0 lead when they sacked Prairie quarterback Kale Morris for a 10-yard loss on 3rd and 10, forcing the Gophers to punt. TC took over on its own 44 and on the first play of the drive, Kelley broke loose for a 56-yard TD run, putting the Trojans up 18-0 with 6:27 to play in the half.
“Anytime you can break off into a big play like that, it puts a dent in the defense big time,” Kelley said. “I know when it happens to us, your head goes down a little bit. That play put us up a notch. I’ve really got to thank my line. They’ve been blocking for me all year long.”
Kelley’s other score, a one-yard run off right tackle at 6:58 in the third quarter, put TC up 26-0. Dillon Smith added a one-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter for the Trojans final score as Clinton Prairie (5-7) couldn’t make a threat, turning the ball over on three of its four second half possessions against the Trojans stingy defense.
“We raise our energy up to another level on defense,” Kelley said. “In practice, we’re hitting, hitting, hitting. When we come out on the field, we’re ready to hit.”
The Gophers turned the ball over seven times in the game — twice on fumbles, twice on interceptions, and three times on downs.
The teams combined for four turnovers on the first four possessions of the game before TC settled into its groove and slowly but surely put the game away.
The Trojans coughed up the football four plays into their opening drive. CP responded by fumbling on its first play from scrimmage. TC returned the favor when it fumbled on its first play of the next possession.
“We practiced outside, even in the rain, every night this week, and we didn’t have any fumbles,” Gilbert said. “And then we put the ball on the ground, they put the ball on the ground. … I have never seen a turnover series like that, and I’ve been doing this 34 years. Once the guys got their heads on straight, they marched the ball down field and scored and then we were off.”
On the second play of the Gophers next possession, Colten Leininger picked off Morris and TC took over at its own 44. Five plays and 56 yards later, quarterback Cody Howell hooked up with receiver Jade Pickett on a six-yard strike for the pair’s eighth touchdown of the year.
Howell added a three-yard second quarter run that put the Trojans up 12-0.
TC’s shutout was its fifth of the season, and second against the Gophers.