By JOSH SIGLER
Over the course of Lewis Cass football coach Scott Mannering’s 27-year tenure, the Kings have lived by the catch phrase “Next man up.”
When a starter goes down with an injury or illness, the next player on the depth chart is expected to not bat an eye, step in and help the squad not miss a beat.
When senior fullback Jacob Collins was lost for the season to a leg injury in Week 6, junior Gabe Welch stepped in and, in true Kings fashion, helped the squad keep on rolling.
Friday night, the junior ran for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries as the No. 7-ranked Kings stifled Fairfield’s offense in the second half of a 46-14 drubbing in a Class 2A Sectional 26 semifinal clash, a game in which Cass finished with 43 unanswered points.
“Coach Mannering has always told us the philosophy of Lewis Cass football is ‘Next man up,’” Welch reiterated. “If one of us goes down, others have to be ready to go and play at varsity speed. ... I came in prepared to step up. I always just try to play hard and play my best, and that’s what I did [Friday] night.”
Cass improved to 10-1, marking the Kings’ seventh season with 10 or more wins in the last 10 years.
The Kings will face North Judson in next week’s Sectional 26 final. The Bluejays (5-6) topped Rochester 20-16 on the road Friday night.
Cass drew first blood on its opening drive. After the drive stalled at the Fairfield 11-yard-yard line, senior Marcus Hedrick booted a 27-yard field goal — the Kings’ first of the year — between the pipes with 6:15 to go in the opening period.
The Falcons (7-4) answered with a pair of touchdowns on long drives. Quarterback Garrett Scott hit wideout Caleb Noble with a 24-yard TD strike to put Fairfield up 7-3 with 1:21 left in the opening stanza, capping an 11-play drive. Following Cass’ only punt of the night, the Falcons marched 54 yards in 10 plays on the ensuing possession to go up 14-3 with 5:03 left in the first half after Scott capped the drive with a three-yard plunge.
“That second touchdown, Scott just walked into the end zone, and I thought, ‘Boy, this could be rough,’” Mannering said. “But, our offense picked it up. We made some plays there in the second quarter, scoring twice within a two-minute span which gave us a big boost going into halftime. The defensive kids, our pass defense got a little bit better every series. They threw the ball very well, but we didn’t get beat deep. Our defense against the run [Friday] night, I was very pleased with.
“Our word this week was ‘Perseverance.’ You have to withstand the trials and keep plugging away, and I thought we did that [Friday] night.”
Cass scored 22 points in the second quarter to take a 25-14 lead into the half. Quarterback Sheldon Slusser hit tight end Kyle Dwiggins with a 63-yard touchdown pass on the next play from scrimmage after Scott’s TD run.
The Kings forced a punt and scored on a wild exchange seven plays later. Slusser handed off to Garrett Riley at the Falcon 24, but Riley flipped the ball back to Slusser after getting stood up. Slusser broke free and finished off the final 20 yards for the score with 1:30 to go in the half.
Fairfield fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Kings scored again 36 seconds later on Welch’s 10-yard scamper with 44.6 seconds left in the half.
With a two-possession lead at the break, Cass took the opening possession of the second half 68 yards in eight plays, capped by Drew Shepherd’s five-yard TD run, which put the Kings up 32-14 with 8:23 to play.
Cass’ defense held Fairfield to 19 yards rushing in the second half. And, although Scott finished the night 18 of 33 through the air for 183 yards, Shepherd intercepted a pair of passes from his safety position in the second half to help further bolster a Kings’ defense that was playing without the services of cornerback Justen Downhour, who was out with an injury.
“We lost [Downhour] two weeks ago, and we had to make decisions and adjust on the fly,” Shepherd said. “I was pleased with how everyone stepped up and did their job. Getting picks rallies everyone up and helps out momentum. We thrive on momentum, and that helped a lot in the second half.”
Shepherd’s two picks give him seven for the season.
Slusser finished the night 4 of 10 passing for 130 yards and a TD, and also ran 11 times for 56 yards and a score. Riley added 52 yards on seven carries for the Kings.
Noble ended the night with 10 catches for 112 yards and a TD in his final game for the Falcons.
Mannering celebrated win No. 199 of his career Friday night, all of which have come at Cass.