By Tribune sports staff
These are the days, the opportunities that Nate Andrews talked about when he met with the Panthers for the first time upon taking over as Western’s football coach this past summer.
“There’s two things, when I addressed this team initially,” Andrews said. “First and foremost, we talked about doing things the right way on and off the field. The second thing that we said we were going to do was we said we’re going to win in the postseason, in the tournament.”
Andrews said he knew Western had fashioned a lot of strong regular seasons “but not much hardware in the trophy case. That’s one thing we’ve put an emphasis on.”
Today, Western (6-5) gets a chance to take its first sectional hardware since 2007 and just third all-time as the Panthers host Eastbrook (8-3) in the championship game of Class 3A Sectional 19. The game is a return engagement in the rivalry series between the Grant County Panthers and the Howard County variety. This time, Western hopes to fashion a different ending.
Eastbrook beat Western 33-16 in Week 2 at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. That was Western’s second game under new coach Andrews and Western has shown plenty of growth since starting the season 1-3.
“Oh, I think we’ve improved,” Andrews said. “We’ve gotten to know and develop an identity for ourselves. We’ve started to play harder, we began to play as a team a lot more together. We have become a little bit more balanced on the offensive end — run and pass. I think defensively we’ve ... tightened up a little bit basically.”
Those improvements will be put to the test by a solid Eastbrook squad led by quarterback Jacob Singer. He’s passed for 286 yards and run for 783, averaging 8.4 yards per tote. He returned to the QB spot in Week 8 after missing four games with injury. Two of Eastbrook’s losses came when Singer was out. Austin Simison was the QB in his absence. He leads the team on the ground with 815 yards and has also thrown for 376 yards. Zach Burton has run for an additional 595 yards.
“They’ve got a great football player in their quarterback,” Andrews said. “He’s the guy that runs the show. He’s back now so they’re at full strength and playing confident.
“The best thing about him, he’s a leader, he’s a field general and No. 2 he’s a runner. He’s dynamic as a QB. He’s got the ball in his hands every play. And on defense [as a defensive back] he’s pretty dynamic there as well.”
Andrews said that like his squad, Eastbrook has gotten better as the season has gone along.
“They’re always known for a solid running game and a physical defense and this year is no exception,” Andrews said.
Western counters with a strong running game. James Davis leads Western with 1,178 yards, but he missed last week’s win over Mississinewa due to an injury picked up in the first week of the sectional. He’s listed as questionable-to-doubtful for tonight’s game.
Hudson Featherstone has run for 1,061 yards and leads the team with 13 scores. Ben Lenahan has rushed for 412 yards including a whopping 206 last week against Ole Miss. Quarterback Drew Bellus has passed for 709 yards, with Ronnie Smith snagging 25 catches for 448 yards. Cameron Herr is Western’s top tackler with 90 stops, followed by Robert Harless (74) and Quintin Fields (71).
Cass (10-1) at N. Judson (5-6)
The Class 2A Sectional 26 final between No. 7-ranked Cass and North Judson-San Pierre will mark the first-ever meeting between the teams.
“One really good thing about our sectional is we’re in with a group that we don’t play in the regular season. I think it’d be tough to play the same team twice and it’s especially tough if you’ve beaten a team in a close game. So, it’s exciting — going to a new place, a new opponent,” Cass coach Scott Mannering said.
Cass and North Judson had just one common opponent, Pioneer, during the regular season. In Week 1, Cass rallied from a 12-6 halftime deficit to beat the Panthers 33-12. In Week 5, Pioneer topped North Judson 27-21 in overtime.
North Judson opened 2-0, then lost six straight games before righting the ship with a 21-18 victory over Twin Lakes in the final week of the regular season. The Bluejays then beat Manchester and Rochester in sectional play.
“They have a ton of tradition. I think they really thought this was the year they were going to have an outstanding record. They’ve just had a ton of injuries throughout the year,” Mannering said. “I think there were several weeks in the middle of the season that they were kind of a patchwork offense and defense. They’ve slowly gotten everyone back and I think they’re going to be at about full strength against us. We’re looking a playing a good football team [tonight].”
Four of North Judson’s losses were by eight points or less.
Cass enters the sectional final on a seven-game winning streak. In sectional play, Cass outlasted Bremen 34-28 in two overtimes in the opening round, then whipped Fairfield 46-14 in the semifinal round. Cass scored 43 straight points after Fairfield took a 14-3 lead.
A host of Kings have combined to rush for 3,396 yards, with Drew Shepherd leading the way at 674. Quarterback Sheldon Slusser has 551 yards and 13 touchdowns, Gabe Welch has 478 yards, and Riley Garrett 394. Slusser has passed for 841 yards and 10 TDs with just one interception in 77 pass attempts. His top target is Justin Downhour, with a dozen catches for 343 yards and six TDs.
Payton Young leads the Cass defense with 63.5 tackles, followed by Blake Cain (55.5) and Lucas Knutson (42.5).
“I think we’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Mannering said. “The game at Fairfield might have been our best game of the season. We did get behind, but we played better as the game went on and in the second half, we really took the game over. Our offense probably played as good as it has all year and defensively, we figured things out as the game progressed and we played better each series. By the second half, we were playing much better football. For me, that’s a neat thing to see — when you don’t panic when you’re behind, but you stay with the plan and you figure things out.
“We’ve had our own rash of injuries. We’re fairly thin [in terms of depth], but we have guys who are getting the job done,” Mannering added. “I still think we’re a work in progress, that we can play much better, and hopefully we will [tonight].”
at Benton Central (5-6)
The Class 2A No. 4 Blue Devils enter tonight seeking their eighth sectional title in program history, but more importantly, their first sectional three-peat.
“That would be quite a feather in our cap,” Tipton coach Aaron Tolle said. “We’ve never done it in school history. As soon as last year ended, it was goal No. 1 for this year. We’ve now put ourselves in a situation where we’re one game away, so we certainly have to take advantage of it. This is a game we’ve wanted to play in all year long, so we need to go on the road one more time and play like we’ve been playing in recent ballgames.”
Tipton will make the 90-minute trek to Oxford tonight to take on a Bison squad that is a very familiar foe as a Hoosier Conference opponent. This marks the second time in as many seasons the squads have met both during the regular season and sectional. The Devils have dominated the series in recent years, winning nine straight meetings, including a 47-7 thrashing in Oxford on Aug. 31.
“We are used to the long bus rides. I don’t think that will faze us at all,” Tolle said. “The thing that is most worrisome is having to play the same team twice in the same year, especially a conference opponent where both teams know each other extremely well. I don’t care what the score was the first time, it’s extremely hard to beat a team twice in the same season.”
Tipton is led by a potent offense that has averaged nearly 52 points per game in its current five game win streak.
The Devils feature a potent balanced attack led by quarterback Austin Hooker, fullback James Altherr and wideout Blake Hoover.
Hooker enters tonight having completed 109 of 175 passes for 1,816 yards, 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s also a threat with his legs, where he’s run the ball 99 tiles for 449 yards and seven TDs.
Hooker’s favorite target this season has been Hoover, who has 53 catches for 948 yards and 16 TDs. Altherr is a punishing runner who enters tonight with 1,144 yards and 13 TDs on the ground.
BC counters with an aerial assault, led by QB Brandon Rooze, who has completed 148 of 292 passes for 1,954 yards, 18 TDs and 23 interceptions. Garrett Gray is the team’s leading receiver and runner with 42 catches for 662 yards and seven TDs through the air and 153 carries for 608 yards and six TDs on the ground.
“The key to them is turnovers,” Tolle said. “The quarterback throws a really good ball, but he’s thrown 23 interceptions. I’d imagine they’ll throw the ball 40 times [tonight]. If he gets hot, he’s got a lot of playmakers who have been around for three or four years. Like a lot of our guys, they’re experienced and have played in a lot of varsity ballgames. That’s kind of worrisome. We have to create turnovers.”
at Sheridan (7-4)
The Class A No. 10 Trojans are enjoying success rarely seen in Sharpsville. Last week’s 35-10 win at Lapel gave TC its first 10-win season since 1991.
The squad now has a chance to raise its first sectional crown since that same year.
“The whole year has been exciting for our community,” TC coach George Gilbert said. “The people are really enjoying it. We have nice crowds, and people have been doing nice things for the kids. There’s a great chemistry of fellowship going on out here at Tri-Central. It’s pretty neat.”
Headlining TC’s resurgence has been its punishing ground attack, led by senior running backs Austin Horn and Martavius Hunt. Horn leads the way with 1,470 yards and 15 TDs on 179 carries, while Hunt isn’t far behind with 1,448 yards and 22 TDs on 128 carries.
“The line of scrimmage is vital, but we’re just fast,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been able to be faster than most teams, and that’s the thing that Tri-Central hasn’t been in the past. We saw glimpses of it last year, but we’ve seen it all season this year. We hit people, and that’s special when you’re fast and you hit people and are playing fundamental. When you’re doing that you have a chance for success. Our line play has been really good, and it’s been good because we’re fast.”
Standing in TC’s way of a sectional title is perennial 1A powerhouse and No. 9-ranked Sheridan, a program that boasts nine state championships. The Blackhawks defeated the Trojans 22-14 in this season’s regular season finale at Lucas Oil Stadium, giving Sheridan the Hoosier Heartland Conference crown.
Sheridan also boasts a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Austin Hoover and Tyler Callahan. Hoover headlines the offense with 1,353 yards on 180 carries, while Callahan adds 1,022 yards on 124 carries.
“We have to go out and play four quarters to give ourselves a shot to win,” Gilbert said. “If we’re going to win, it’s going to have to be a close game. We’re going to have to be able to win the game in the fourth quarter. We have to make Sheridan earn everything they get, and then answer anything they try to earn. Even though we have the better record, we’re still the underdog.”