By Beau Wicker Pharos-Tribune
---- — ROYAL CENTER — The Winamac Warriors’ dream season continues.
The Warriors faced yet another rock-solid Pioneer team on Friday night in a regional championship showdown.
Winamac was up to the challenge and then some, delivering a 28-14 win in front of a standing-room only crowd at The Pit.
The Warriors claimed their second ever regional title and first since 2000.
“It’s crazy. This is probably the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Winamac senior Keegan Kasten said. “We came out and we played an almost perfect game. I think we had too many penalties, but Pioneer, man, they battled hard from the trenches, everywhere, they battled us really hard. It was a hard-fought game.”
It was also Winamac’s first win at The Pit since 2000, which is also the last time the Warriors started a season 13-0.
“This team is as good as 2000 and now they have a chance to prove they’re better,” Winamac coach Tim Roth said. “And that’s saying something because that 2000 team was awesome. But this team’s pretty awesome too.”
The Class A No. 3 Warriors (13-0) host No. 8 Tri-Central (12-1) at 7:30 p.m. next Friday for the northern semistate game. No. 1 Linton-Stockton (13-0) travels to No. 4 Eastern Hancock (13-0) for the southern semistate game.
Tyler Katschke was in beast mode for the regional game and finished with a game-high 113 yards rushing on 19 carries and had a pair of 15-yard touchdown runs in the second half to lead the Warriors.
Pioneer (10-3) was denied in its bid for a fourth regional title.
The Panthers had to be just about perfect in this one. They almost were, but they had a fumble at the goal line on their first possession and they fell short of a first down on their second possession by about an inch on a fourth-down play in Winamac territory. The result was a 14-0 deficit at halftime.
Parker Fox had a 1-yard touchdown run and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kasten in the first half to bolt the Warriors out to the 14-0 lead.
Pioneer opened the second half with a touchdown that included a long kickoff return by a J.P. Smith and a 1-yard TD run by Sam Kiser. Fullback Justin Mersch converted the 2-point conversion to make it a 14-8 game.
The Panthers then recovered a Winamac fumble on a muffed handoff on the Warrior 27-yard line and had a prime opportunity to tie the game or take the lead in the third quarter.
But the Warriors defense held on a four-and-out and their offense quickly drove on the field and scored on the first of Katschke’s touchdown runs to make it 21-8.
After a Kiser punt pinned the Warriors back at their 1-yard line, Pioneer got the ball back in great field position and converted on an 18-yard strike from Kiser to Kamrin Buell to make it a 21-14 game with 7:45 remaining.
But the Warriors sealed the regional title with a championship drive. They embarked on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that took 6:25 off the clock. Katschke capped it off with his second touchdown run with 1:20 left to play to make it a 28-14 game.
The Panthers drove the ball into Winamac territory again on their final possession but ran out of time.
The Panthers had little room for error and came up short.
“We had some opportunities we did not capitalize on,” Pioneer coach Mike Johnson said. “When you turn the ball over and have penalties, it’s going to come back to bite you, especially against a team like that.
“I was a little disappointed that we didn’t play a little better than that. We certainly had opportunities on offense and did not get it done. The defense played well enough and gave us some chances. But it was certainly not the level that we needed to play at in order to win a regional.”
Fox was again a Panther killer. He finished with 73 yards rushing and a touchdown and was 5-of-8 passing for 100 yards and a touchdown in his second game back from a broken collarbone that sidelined him for five games.
Levi Schultz added with 56 yards rushing and 61 yards receiving for Winamac, and Kasten had 73 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.
Winamac outgained Pioneer 376-216 in total yardage including 276-170 on the ground. None of the yards were more important than the final 80 on the final drive with the regional on the line.
Mersch led the Panthers with 87 yards rushing on 21 carries. Keith Nies had 40 yard on eight attempts, and he broke his collarbone during a late tackle playing defense. Smith added 31 yards on six attempts. Kiser, a 1,000-yard rusher on the season as a sophomore, was held to 12 yards on 11 attempts with a touchdown and was 5-of-12 passing for 46 yards and another score.
Pioneer’s leading tackler on the season, Tyler Hanna, played on defense with a broken hand but was unable to play on offense, forcing freshman Nies into double duty.
The Panthers had just four seniors play in the game — Smith, Hanna, Buell and left tackle A.J. Beckley — so the future remains bright.
The future is now for the Warriors, who are a win away from their first ever trip to the state finals.
Scorebox: Winamac 28, Pioneer 14. Next: Warriors host Tri-Central in semistate.