By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — SHARPSVILLE — His football team is entering uncharted waters, and Tri-Central coach George Gilbert is perfectly comfortable with it.
The Class A No. 8-ranked Trojans (11-1), already holding the school records for wins in a season, will ride their program-best 11-game winning streak into Berne tonight to face South Adams (5-7) in the visitors’ first appearance in the regional round since 1991, when they fell to Frontier 22-16.
“We’re in a whole new world for these kids,” Gilbert said. “No one’s worried about it. The big task was to win the sectional. Now, we can relax and play football and do what we do. We’re pretty doggone good this year. I don’t think it’s ever going to soak in with the boys. You hear coaches say that when you’re having success. It’s just a wonderful ride, and when it’s all over it’ll soak in with them. Right now they’re focusing on winning. We’re not tight. We’re not going to consider this a live-or-die situation. We’re just going to go out and play football. I’ve been at this level three different times before this year, and I thought our kids went out tight and we’re extreme underdogs. This team, we’re going to go out loose. We’re favored to win. We just have to bring it. So, it’s important for us to just go out and have fun.”
Awaiting TC, after the nearly two-hour trip to Berne, will be a Starfires squad that’s riding high after shaking off a six-game losing streak during the season to get hot at the right time and capture their first sectional title since 1996. Both of their last two contests have been one-point victories after they avenged a regular-season loss to Adams Central with a 14-13 victory in the sectional semifinals round, and then blocked an extra point in overtime to down Southwood 40-39.
Junior quarterback Derek Wanner leads the Starfires’ wing-T offense, throwing for 1,002 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on 64-of-139 firing. He’s also the squad’s leading rusher with 171 carries for 674 yards and six TDs.
SA has several other viable options on offense. Sophomore Drew Lefever adds 165 carries for 665 yards and four TDs, while junior Skylar Schoch enters regional play with 121 carries for 564 yards and eight TDs. Schoch (20 catches, 475 yards, five TDs) and junior Isaiah Amstutz (21 catches, 219 yards, two TDs) are the team’s leading receivers.
“They are really, really fast,” Gilbert said. “Their record really isn’t indicative of how well they play. They play a schedule like Sheridan. I think they play the second-toughest schedule in Class A, and that makes it a bit misleading. We have to be concerned with playing for four quarters and hit them. I don’t think they’ve played anyone like us, and I’m hoping our defense can rise up for our offense. Defense is what wins championships.”
TC has shown its own superb balance this season, led by senior tailback Garrett Kelley, who has run for a school-record 1,518 yards this season while adding 17 TDs on 214 carries. Sophomores Cody Colbert (99 carries, 644 yards, four TDs) and Dillon Smith (81 carries, 510 yards, eight TDs) have made it difficult for defenses to key on Kelley.
Junior quarterback Cody Howell has completed 70 off 118 passes for 1,229 yards, 22 TDs and just three interceptions. Seniors Jade Pickett (22 catches, 344 yards, eight TDs) and Seth Blunck (20 catches, 419 yards, five TDs) have been Howell’s favorite targets. The Trojans will look to put SA’s 5-2 defense in tough situations with that balance.
“Their linebackers play really well, but they’re small,” Gilbert said. “On both sides of the ball they’re small but really fast. We haven’t faced a really fast team other than Sheridan and Eastern Hancock, but it’s been a long time since we played Eastern Hancock. I don’t think they’re as fast as Sheridan in the backfield, but I think their line play is as fast. We’ll see how our speed matches up with theirs.