by Beau Wicker
ROYAL CENTER —
With a regional championship on the line, Winamac’s football team took control.
After Pioneer scored to make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, the Warriors answered and sealed the regional title in the process.
They embarked on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that took 6:35 off the clock and was capped by a 15-yard touchdown run by Tyler Katschke with 1:20 remaining, and for all intents and purposes the regional was theirs.
Winamac knocked out rival Pioneer with a 28-14 win for its first regional title since 2000 and second all time.
“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.
Pioneer (10-3) was denied in its bid for a fourth regional title.
The Panthers were hurt by a fumble on the Winamac 2-yard line on their first possession of the game and were later stopped about an inch short on a fourth-down play in Winamac territory on their second possession, and the Warriors had the fast start they were looking for in jumping out to a 14-0 lead at halftime.
“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.”
Winamac opened the game with a 13-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Parker Fox around right end.
Pioneer answered with a nice drive of its own but J.P. Smith fumbled near the goal line and Kasten recovered at the 2 for Winamac. The Warriors then quickly struck with a 98-yard drive, capped by a 10-yard TD pass from Fox to Kasten to make it a 14-0 game with 8:48 left in the second quarter. The drive took just seven plays and included receptions of 15 and 46 yards by Levi Schultz.
All-state kicker Zach Markley had a low kick that was blocked on a 39-yard field goal try as time expired in the first half and the Warriors had to settle for a 14-0 lead at the break.
Smith opened the second half with a 50-yard kickoff return for the Panthers to the Winamac 31-yard line. It took them nine plays, but Sam Kiser scored on a quarterback sneak from 1 yard out and Justin Mersch ran in the conversion to make it a 14-8 game.
Winamac fumbled a handoff on its ensuing drive and Austyn Sparks recovered to give Pioneer the ball on the Warrior 27-yard line, and the Panthers were in business.
But the Warriors forced a four-and-out to stop the momentum, and it took them just five plays to march 74 yards, and Katschke’s 15-yard TD run made it a 21-8 game with 3:20 left in the third quarter.
A Katschke sack helped stop a promising Pioneer drive, but Kiser pinned the Warriors back on their 1-yard line with a 48-yard punt.
The Panthers forced a three-and-out and Keith Nies picked up a fourth-and-3 with a 3-yard gain before Kiser found Kamrin Buell open for an 18-yard touchdown pass with 7:45 remaining in the game. Mersch was stuffed on the conversion try and Winamac led 21-14.
That’s when the Warriors sealed the deal. Schultz had a key 4-yard pickup on a third-and-2 play early during their final drive. He appeared to bobble the handoff but recovered in time and made an extra lunge at the end to pick up the first down. Katschke later converted a third-and-1 with a 3-yard run.
Then on third and about a foot from Pioneer’s 30-yard line, Fox found Kasten wide open for a 15-yard gain to pick up another key first down.
“I was surprised with that one, too,” Katschke said. “Coach [Mark] Hendryx called that one. They stacked up the box and there was nobody around. And Parker, it felt like the ball was in the air forever and I didn’t think it was ever going to come down.”
But it did and Kasten made the catch, and Katschke then darted for his 15-yard score and Winamac was on its way.
“It feels good. It feels really good,” said an emotional Roth after the game. “We know coming into tonight’s game it would be a war. It wouldn’t be easy. Mike had his kids ready.
“I think our strength wore them down. ... When we set our minds to it and the big boys up front get going, we’re hard to stop.”
Katschke finished with 113 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Fox had 73 yards rushing and a touchdown and was 5-of-8 passing for 100 yards and a touchdown. Schultz finished with 56 yards rushing and 61 yards receiving, and Kasten added 73 yards from scrimmage.
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 Warriors’ final drive.
“We told our offensive line, you guys get the push and we’re going to make sure we keep on going,” Kasten said. “They got the push, they were driving people 3, 4 yards off.”
Mersch led the Panthers with 87 yards rushing on 21 carries. Nies had 40 yard on eight attempts but may have broken his collarbone during a late tackle playing defense, Johnson said. 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.
“We have to be a little more committed to the weight room,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we are committed to the weight room like we used to be. And it’s hard, it’s difficult and it’s hard and the kids don’t like it because it’s tough. But if you want to play tough and be physical you have to do it. And I think maybe these guys will come and work out and decide to commit themselves to it and become a better football team. Just by coming back doesn’t guarantee you are a good football team. You hope that they work at it and get it done.”
Johnson credited the Warriors.
“They’re awfully, awfully, awfully tough with Katschke and Fox back now. They are real physical on the offensive side. My hats off to them,” he said. “The [Dalton] Button kid, No. 59, he’s about 290 pounds and was very, very difficult for us to handle up front.”
Fox had another big game against the Panthers after helping the Warriors end their 47-game Midwest Conference winning streak back in Week 2. He returned last week from a broken collarbone injury that forced him to miss five games.
“They’re a good team and that pushes you to try harder,” said Fox of his strong play against the Panthers. “I got good protection up front with my linemen, keeping me safe. I was feeling good out there.
“It’s good to be back. I love being back.”
And the Warriors and their fans love being back in the semistate.