BERNE — For coach George Gilbert, it took 34 seasons as a head coach. For the Tri-Central football program, it took 42 seasons of existence.
Both will tell you it was well worth the wait.
The No. 8-ranked Trojans imposed their will on host South Adams in Friday's Class A regional contest, wearing down the Starfires in a 28-7 victory for the program's first regional crown.
In his five years at TC, Gilbert has delivered the Trojans from the depths of 0-10 in 2009 to where they stand currently, 12-1 on the season, on a 12-game win streak and one win away from a berth in the state finals. Gilbert won three sectional titles in his tenure at Clinton Central, but Friday marked his first regional title as a head coach.
"I have a lot of pride for a group of kids with a lot of character and a community that stood behind us," Gilbert said. "When I came into this school everyone was concerned because I was the enemy. I told them we were going to play smashmouth football, and everyone laughed. I think people have stopped laughing now. Our program has taken off. Our coaches' plans were outstanding and so was the play of our kids. I'm just so proud of everybody."
Tri-Central's offense finished the night with 266 yards on 46 carries for an average of 5.8 yards per carry — less than a yard short of their season average of 6.5 per carry. Like he has all season, senior tailback Garrett Kelley shouldered the bulk of the load. Kelley finished with 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 27 carries, furthering what was already his single-season rushing record at TC.
"South Adams' defense flowed pretty well," Kelley said. "I haven't gone through the line and gotten popped like that in a long time. Our linemen were blocking fine. We got what we preached, which is three yards a carry, so I have to thank them. That's what helped us drive down the field every time. We didn't need the big breakaway touchdowns, we just needed to keep getting those three-yard gains. That's what we did. We're tough. We're really tough. We're going to hit you and we're going to drive down the field on you."
Defensively, TC made life miserable for the Starfires. South Adams (5-8) finished the night with 75 rushing yards on 40 carries, and 66 of its 151 total yards came on a desperation drive in the closing minutes, a drive where the Trojans forced a turnover on downs after a fourth-and goal from the four-yard line with 13 seconds to play.
"Their defense, up front, were some of the best we've seen all year," South Adams coach Rich Burkhalter said. "[Defensive lineman Darius Stanley] is an outstanding player. I knew we couldn't win every battle at the nose-center position, we just had to try to win the majority. Their a very good football team defensively."
Stanley was one of three Trojans to reach double-digit tackles with 10, while adding two tackles for loss. Fellow lineman Ryan Cage led TC with 15 tackles and four tackles for loss, and another lineman, Lake Baumiller, rounded out a dominant effort by the Trojan front with 12 tackles.
"Their offense is difficult to defend, but at the same time, we knew what was coming," Stanley said. "We played our responsibilities and our gaps, and our defensive line helped us come out on top by clogging up the running lanes. I'm proud of the way we stayed focused, stayed on track and did what we needed to do to win."
TC never trailed. Kelley capped off a 74-yard drive with a one-yard TD plunge with 4:13 left in the first quarter.
South Adams' lone score came on a turnover. Skylar Schoch blocked a Trojan punt attempt to set the Starfires up at the TC 11-yard line with 10:16 to play in the second quarter, but the Trojans held SA out of the end zone after a pass attempt on fourth-and-goal from the TC two sailed long.
Two plays later, Cal Clouser intercepted a screen pass at the TC five, and Drew Lefever punched in a one-yard TD run two plays later to tie it at 7-7 with 7:07 to play.
The Starfires appeared to have forced a three-and-out after the ensuing kickoff, but TC went to its bag of tricks on fourth-and-three from its own 41, where a fake punt turned into a 34-yard gain by Cody Colbert. QB Cody Howell hit flanker Seth Blunck with a 22-yard TD strike three plays later to help give the Trojans a 14-7 halftime lead.
Kelley scored his second TD of the night on an 11-yard run with 11:52 to play, capping a 71-yard drive. And after forcing a three-and-out, TC went on an 11-play, 82-yard march that chewed up over six minutes to seal it. Howell hit Jade Pickett with a one-yard TD pass with 3:15 to play, then hit Blunck with the two-point conversion pass to put TC up 28-7.
Howell added 80 yards rushing on nine carries, and was 4 of 7 through the air for 58 yards, two TDs and an interception.
Schoch finished with 31 yards on 10 carries to lead SA, while Lefever added 29 yards on 12 carries. QB Derek Wanner was 4 of 11 for 76 yards, with 67 of those yards coming on the Starfires' final drive.
Tri-Central will visit No. 3 Winamac in next week's Class A north semistate. Winamac (13-0) defeated No. 9 Pioneer 28-14 in Friday's other Class A north regional.