Western’s football team owns credentials that would seemingly make it a sectional favorite. The Panthers own an 8-1 record and they won a share of the Mid-Indiana Conference championship.
But in Class 3A Sectional 28, impressive credentials are par for the course.
Seven of the eight teams are 6-3 or better — No. 4-ranked Yorktown, No. 6 West Lafayette and No. 8 Western are all 8-1, Eastbrook is 7-2 and No. 14 Delta, Mississinewa and Northwestern are all 6-3.
“I think it’s the toughest 3A sectional,” Western coach Nate Andrews said. “I think West Lafayette is the headliner and Delta and Yorktown are definitely strong. I think Yorktown is playing really good football right now. And then you have Eastbrook, who is a defending sectional champion and healthy at the right time. And then you throw in ourselves, Northwestern and Mississinewa. It’s loaded.”
Northwestern coach John Hendryx offered a similar assessment.
“You look at that thing from top to bottom, there’s just a lot of really good teams in there. I think at one time or another, seven of the eight have been ranked in the top 15. It’s pretty rough,” he said.
For the Tigers, Class 3A is unfamiliar territory. They spent the last 10 years in Class 2A.
“We’re the little dog,” Hendryx quipped. “The last guy you want to be is the smallest school in your class. Somebody has to be that guy and it just happens to be us. Western is the biggest 3A in Indiana and Delta has been 4A for a long time. Delta and Yorktown hardly even play 3A schools [in the regular season]. It’s just a whole different world for us.”
Hendryx has experience with switching classes. He led Carroll to the Class A state championship in 1995 and a runner-up finish in ‘96. The Cougars previously had played in Class 2A.
“Every time you step up in class, the game is a little faster, the players are a little bigger. Everything changes a little bit,” he said. “It definitely will be a challenge for us, but it’s one that we look forward to. Everyone likes tournament time. If you can’t get excited for this time of year, then I’m not sure why you’re involved in football.”
The first round is Friday. Western hosts Mississinewa while Northwestern plays at Blackford (1-8). The following are looks at those two games.
OLE MISS (6-3) AT WESTERN (8-1)
The Panthers enter the sectional on a roll after beating perennial rivals Hamilton Heights and Cass the last two weeks to snag a share of the MIC title.
“I think we are playing good football, but I think that among the coaching staff, we feel we can play better and we will need to definitely do that going forward,” Andrews said.
Western and Mississinewa are meeting in the postseason for the fourth straight year. The three previous meetings all came in sectional semifinals with Western winning all three.
The Panthers beat the Indians 47-26 last year, which was Andrews’ first as Western’s skipper.
“I think they’re similar to the way they were a year ago,” Andrews said. “They have a potent offense with a huge offensive line and a very good running back. Their quarterback might be as accurate as any quarterback that we’ve played this year. They have skilled and very tall receivers. So, their offense is very good.”
The teams had two common opponents during the regular season, Eastbrook and Maconaquah. Western beat Eastbrook 24-11 in Week 2 and lost to Maconaquah 28-18 in Week 5. Ole Miss drilled Maconaquah 42-9 in Week 2 and lost to Eastbrook 38-26 in Week 7.
The Indians average 45.7 points per game. They closed the regular season with a pair of 60-point explosions — a 68-42 victory over Madison-Grant and a 62-27 rout of Oak Hill.
Running back Blake Dailey is the Indians’ top threat. He has rushed for 1,559 yards and 23 touchdowns. Quarterback Hontz McCarty has completed 43 of 73 pass attempts for 953 yards with 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. His top targets are Peyton Lowe (16 catches for 361 yards and 4 TDs) and Seth McPheron (12-307-8).
The Indians allow 25.6 ppg.
The Panthers score 36.6 ppg and allow just 12 ppg. The Panthers’ offense is producing 312 rushing yards per game. Running backs Ben Lenahan (853 yards) and Ryan Alexander (662) and quarterback Drew Bellus (468) are the top threats.
Andrews knows field position and ball security are keys in sectional play.
“What we have to do is sustain drives like we’ve done these last several weeks. But more than that, we have to make them work offensively for everything they get. We can’t allow them or give them the big plays. We have to make them earn the scores,” he said.
The Western-Mississinewa winner will face the Delta-West Lafayette winner in the semifinal round.
NORTHWESTERN (6-3) AT BLACKFORD (1-8)
The Tigers open against the one team in the sectional with a losing record.
“You look at that 1-8 and sometimes it’s hard to look past that,” Hendryx acknowledged. “We’re trying to make sure [the Tiger players] understand that we’re going to their place, a long bus drive, fall break — just a lot of things going on. We just have to make sure we stay focused on the task.”
Northwestern and Blackford are first-time football opponents.
“I’ve never been to Blackford High School before so this will be a new experience for me,” Hendryx said. “I know their record is not what they want it to be, but they have some good athletes. Their quarterback [Trace Oswalt], from what everyone I’ve talked to has told me, is a good athlete — very fast, throws well and hard to sack. So, it will be a challenge for us.”
The Bruins score 11.3 points per game and allow 49.9.
The Tigers score 29.4 and allow 17.8.
Northwestern closed the regular season with back-to-back wins, beating Peru 37-18 and Eastern 48-20.
“I like the way we finished these last couple games,” Hendryx said, “and I guess I mean that literally, too. We had some problems during the season finishing drives. We’d move the ball well but for one reason or another, it just seemed like we had a lot of drives stall inside the 30. It’s just nice these last couple weeks, we’ve got drives finished, got some points on the board. Hopefully we can continue to do that.”
The Tigers lost leading rusher Michael Plummer to a season-ending head injury in the Peru game. Curtis Townsend stepped in against Eastern and rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Keegan Fessenden added 93 yards and three TDs on seven carries.
The NW-Blackford winner will face the Eastbrook-Yorktown winner in the semifinal round.
Class 3A Sectional 28 Friday's games; 7 p.m. kickoffs • Mississinewa (6-3) at Western (8-1) • Delta (6-3) at West Lafayette (8-1) • Yorktown (8-1) at Eastbrook (7-2) • Northwestern (6-3) at Blackford (1-8)