By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — When Tipton quarterback Austin Hooker went down with a broken arm in Week 2, the Blue Devils had to adjust their season goals.
Three straight losses to Rensselaer Central (9-7), West Lafayette (34-10) and Lafayette Central Catholic (14-7) left the team at 3-3. Hooker returned in Week 7 and Tipton appears to be rolling again, having won three straight against Sheridan, Twin Lakes and Delphi. The Class 2A No. 7-ranked Devils didn’t expect to enter postseason play with three losses, but at the end of the day, a shot at a fourth straight sectional title still has a chance to become a reality with Hooker back under center.
“We have dealt with a lot of adversity this year but I’d like to think we’ve overcome it,” Tipton coach Aaron Tolle said. “When Austin got hurt we put a positive spin on it. We challenged ourselves to get better defensively, in the kicking game and on the offensive line. We felt like if we got better in those areas, once we got Austin back we’d be that much better. Some of that has happened, and some of those questions are yet to be answered. We’re staring two really tough teams in the face so those questions will get answered in the next couple weekends.”
Tipton hosts Cass (5-4) tonight at 7 p.m. in the start of Sectional 35 play, a Kings’ squad Tolle and the Blue Devils know well. Cass is the last team to hand Tipton a sectional loss, topping the Devils 15-0 in a rainy, windy sectional semifinal contest in Walton in 2009. The Kings went on to claim the sectional crown.
“You don’t have to watch film to know that Cass is a team that’s extremely disciplined and well-coached,” Tolle said. “Coach [Scott] Mannering is one of the best coaches in the state, probably a hall of famer down the road. This is a huge challenge for us as a coaching staff. They’re one of those programs that regardless of the amount of talent, they will be extremely competitive and be winners and not beat themselves. You’re going to have to go out and beat them. We can’t afford to make mistakes and give them opportunities to win. It’s just a huge challenge.”
The Kings had a four-game winning streak snapped in a 23-8 loss at Western last week. The win gave the Panthers a share of the Mid-Indiana Conference crown.
“We played better in the second half of the season, and sometimes that’s hard to tell because our schedule is tough at the start of the year,” Mannering said. “I was really disappointed in the way we played against West Lafayette and Northwestern in particular. The Hamilton Heights game I thought we showed some improvement. We got beat by a good Western team last week. We were in the ball game and had opportunities, but they deserve to be conference champs. We’re above .500 right now and as good as we can be, and we hope that can carry us into [tonight].”
Leading Cass’ wing-T offense is Gabe Welch, who enters postseason play with 855 yards and nine touchdowns on 116 carries. Brendan McGehee has also shown to be a formidable option on the ground with 70 carries for 525 yards and eight TDs. Payton Young has also performed well for a deep backfield with 77 carries for 500 yards and three TDs. Quarterback Owen Ohman is 24 of 50 through the air for 379 yards, six TDs and one interception.
“They’re very balanced,” Tolle said of the Kings. “They don’t have that one go-to guy, but rather an offensive system. What that makes us have to do is be very disciplined at every position on defense. You have to be just as disciplined on defense as they are on offense, because coach Mannering will find the guys who aren’t being disciplined and exploit them. It’s a tournament ballgame, and who wants to practice more next week is what it comes down to.”
Nate Hein leads Tipton’s rushing offense with 139 carries for 849 yards and six TDs, while Brody Dell has added 117 carries for 639 yards and eight TDs. In just over four games of action, Hooker is 43 of 79 through the air for 629 yards, four TDs and one interception. He also has 44 carries for 263 yards and six TDs on the ground. Jake Devendorf is the teams’s leading receiver with 28 catches for 382 yards and three TDs.
“They’re very solid,” Mannering said of Tipton. “They have a really good nucleus of players. They obviously throw it well and run the ball extremely well also, so it’ll be tough to defend everything. It’s a big challenge for us obviously. Western ran the ball on us very well and we have to improve that. At the same time, we have to be able to cover the deep receivers. Defensively it’s a big challenge, so we have to play extremely well on the offensive side and on special teams.”
Tipton boasts an area-best eight sectional championships, with Cass a close second with seven titles.
The Tipton-Cass winner will face the winner of the North Putnam (1-8) at No. 2 Central Catholic (8-1) contest next week.
SOUTHMONT (3-6) at TAYLOR (0-9)
In another Sectional 35 first-round contest, the Titans host a Mounties squad (7 p.m.) that is dealing with the loss of starting quarterback Devon Burton. Sophomore Jarrett Todd will start in his place and direct Southmont’s option offense, which is led by running back Nathaniel Farabee, who has 170 carries for 818 yards and seven TDs on the season.
The Titans are looking to snap a 25-game losing streak.
”I’ve been impressed, particularly this week, with the extra bounce we have in our step,” Taylor coach Eric Davis said. “Everyone makes a big deal about going into the tourney 0-0, and there’s no doubt our kids have taken to that mentality. It’s really shown up in practice.”
Running back Dayne Tomlinson leads the Titans with 135 carries for 535 yards and 10 TDs. QB Jordon Lazaro is 47 of 142 through the air for 460 yards, four TDs and seven interceptions. Darian Stone is the team’s leading receiver with 10 catches for 186 yards and three TDs.
“It’s critical for one team to come out and set the tempo of the game, and we certainly want that to be us,” Davis said. “Getting the ball rolling in the positive direction is huge for us. We have to be able to maintain possession and drive the ball to move the ball consistently. That’s our best defense, having our offense on the field.”
The Southmont-Taylor winner faces the Delphi (4-5) at Benton Central (1-8) winner next week.
BLUFFTON (4-5) at EASTERN (2-7)
Eastern welcomes Bluffton to Greentown in a 7 p.m. sectional matchup.
The Comets boast the area’s best passing attack, led by QB Austin Bates, who is 128 of 240 through the air for 1,834 yards, 15 TDs and 12 interceptions this season. Cree Johnston has 40 catches for 545 yards and two TDs, while Will Porter adds 35 catches for 618 yards and seven TDs. Running back Papee Byers has been hampered by injuries for much of the season, but appears to be back at full strength just in time for the postseason. He ran for over 1,000 yards last year.
“I like the way we’ve gone about things offensively in the last seven weeks,” Eastern coach Josh Edwards said. “There were some games where we just got outmanned. But, I think in games where we had similar competitive balance I like where we’re at, especially now with getting Papee back and having most of the team healthy. If we can get a semblance of a running game going, that makes our passing game even better.”
Bluffton has lost three straight since a 4-2 start to the season. The Tigers have shown balance on offense this season, led by running back D’Wayne Eskridge, who has 87 carries for 839 yards and six TDs. QB Malcom Marshall has completed 69 of 148 passes for 1,094 yards, nine TDs and seven picks. Marshall’s favorite target has been Cody Harris, who has 32 catches for 502 yards and four TDs.
“We’ve got to slow them down,” Edwards said. “Matchup for matchup it seems like a pair of pretty equally matched teams. They struggle in some of the same areas we do. They have a very good offense that has scored some points on some good teams. We have to make sure we get at least a handful of stops. If we can get a couple stops I think we can do some good things offensively.”
The Bluffton-Eastern winner will face the Oak Hill (6-3) at Madison-Grant (3-6) winner next week.