by Beau Wicker
Winamac’s dream season may now be over, but not without one more exhilarating show in front of a packed house at Roudebush Stadium.
The Warriors had a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback thwarted by Tri-Central, which reseized the momentum late and utilized an 80-yard scoring drive that lifted the Trojans to a 20-14 win Friday night in the Class A northern semistate game.
Tri-Central (13-1) will face Eastern Hancock (14-0) at noon on Friday in the state championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Warriors, meanwhile, join their 2000 squad as a team that finished 13-1 and one game short of the state finals.
“It’s a lot like 2000 and unfortunately we’re one week short and just can’t get over that hump,” Winamac coach Tim Roth said. “But a lot to be proud of, a lot of accomplishments, a lot of records broken and a lot of memories. These guys will be talking about this season for a long, long time.”
Things were looking bleak for the Warriors when they trailed 14-0 and were pinned deep in their own territory early in the fourth quarter. But they went on an 85-yard drive to get back into it on the strength of the passing by Parker Fox. His 28-yard strike to Sean Lynch who made a great catch in the end zone made it a 14-7 game with 8:31 remaining.
On Tri-Central’s ensuing drive, Keegan Kasten forced a fumble that Branden DeGroot recovered to give the Warriors the ball back on the TC 32.
Tyler Katschke converted a third-and-9 situation with a punishing 12-yard run, and he then scored on a 2-yard run to tie the game at 14-14 with 5:41 left.
The Warriors then recovered another Tri-Central fumble, this time at the TC 39-yard line.
But the Tri-Central defense stepped up big and forced a fourth-and-9 situation, so the Warriors brought out their all-state kicker, Zach Markley, for a 43-yard field goal attempt. But a false start penalty moved the try to a 48-yarder, and in very difficult conditions to kick, Markley’s try fell five yards short in the end zone.
Tri-Central got the ball on its 20-yard line with 2:41 remaining, which proved to be enough time. The biggest play of the drive might have been when quarterback Cody Howell somehow evaded a sack deep in Trojan territory and found Bryce Dowell for a 14-yard gain to get it started.
“Was that not unbelievable? We had three guys on him and somehow he got out,” Roth said.
Dowell then found running back Cody Colbert for completions of 13 and 20 yards and Tri-Central was aided by a 15-yard facemask penalty.
With 14.6 seconds left, Howell found Jade Pickett who made a great leaping catch near the goal line for a 16-yard gain to the 1-yard line.
Winamac called timeout to set up its defense with 7.4 seconds to go when Tri-Central was already aligned to run a play or clock the ball.
“We had to set our defense,” Roth said. “We don’t have what you call a normal goal line defense. We knew we had to take the sneak away, so we had to set guys in the A gaps and bring somebody in right behind them.”
Following the timeout, Howell powered the ball into the end zone to send the Trojans to their first-ever state finals in football.
“We had him stopped,” Roth said. “I think there’s a penalty called aiding the runner but I have no comment on that so they scored. Unfortunate for us but good for them.”
The Warriors recovered a short kick at their 41-yard line with 4.0 seconds remaining. Fox hit Lynch on a 40-yard bomb but he was tackled about 20 yards short of the end zone as time expired.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Roth said. “I’m proud of the community and the support they’ve given us and I’m proud of our team.
“When we came back and tied it up, I’ve never heard a roar like that in my life.”
The Trojans scored on their first possession of the game. Following a 64-yard completion to Dowell, Howell scored on a 1-yard score less than four minutes in. Both defenses held the rest of the half and Tri-Central led 6-0 at the break.
The Warriors, who entered having gained over 5,300 yards on the season as one of the most dominating teams in the state, had five penalties for 60 yards, a botched fake punt and a turnover in the first half.
“We had a terrible first half, a terrible first half,” Roth said. “We just dug ourselves in a hole and we fought like heck to get out of it. We did get out of it and we had an opportunity with the field goal there, had another mistake which cost us.
“I think Tri-Central came out and out-physicaled us at first. It took us awhile to wake up. Defensively we played well in the first half. They were on our side of the field the whole night in the first half and only came away with six points. So I was proud of the kids.”
The Trojans were pinned back in their own territory to start the second half, but a 13-play, 92-yard drive was capped by an 11-yard TD pass from Howell to Dowell with 2:03 left in the third quarter. Howell then hit Garrett Kelley for the conversion to make it 14-0.
Katschke was stopped 2 yards short of a first down on a fourth-down run to start the fourth quarter, but the Winamac defense held and the Warriors began their comeback attempt.
Katschke led the Warriors with 99 yards rushing and a touchdown. Fox was 8-for-11 passing for 160 yards and a touchdown to Lynch, who finished with four catches for 93 yards. Levi Schultz added three catches for 59 yards.
Fox had an interception near the goal line in the first half he returned to midfield, but the play was moved back 15 yards due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Warriors were flagged 13 times total in the contest for 120 yards.
Howell finished 7-for-17 passing for 154 yards and a touchdown to lead the Trojans. He added 59 yards rushing and two TDs on 12 carries.
The final numbers were even, as Tri-Central outgained Winamac 293-288 in total yardage including 139-128 on the ground.
The Warriors have to settle for an undefeated regular season and Midwest Conference, sectional and regional championships.
As a wise Warriors fan said to the dejected team before they headed back to the locker room: “It just wasn’t our night. But I’ve talked to a lot of people, and there are people all around the world who are proud of you.”