By Beau Wicker and Bryan Gaskins
Many high school football fans across the state are ready to see dominating teams like Lafayette Central Catholic bumped up a class.
But the Pioneer Panthers would like nothing better but to keep their rival and tournament nemesis in Class A for at least another two years with a win tonight.
No. 4-ranked Pioneer (10-1) travels to No. 1-ranked and three-time defending state champion Central Catholic (10-1) for the Sectional 34 title game at 7 o’clock tonight.
“Probably a lot of people will be rooting for LCC,” Pioneer coach Mike Johnson said, “so they will move up.”
The recent meetings have not gone well for the Panthers, who have lost five in a row to the Knights. But they’re still 6-5 against them over the last 11 years.
Last week the Knights ran over Caston, 42-7.
“They’re just very, very quick,” Johnson said. “They have a lot of athletes all over the place. They don’t have a lot of size on defense, but they’re very, very, very fast. Defensively they’re just as good as they’ve been.”
The Panthers have struggled mightily moving the ball against the Knights the last three years, despite ending the last three seasons being ranked No. 2 in the state.
“We’ve played pretty good defense given that our last three ballgames with them we have not been able to do anything consistently at all to move the ball,” Johnson said. “Not only do we have to get first downs, we’ve got to find a way to score.”
The Knights have been in some dogfights, though, this year. Their games against Guerin Catholic (21-14), Twin Lakes (17-12), Tipton (24-13), Heritage Christian (54-40), Rensselaer (15-0) and West Lafayette (24-14) managed to stay within a score or two, and the Knights’ 47-game winning streaked was snapped in a Week 4 loss at Culver Academy (14-12).
All of those schools are either Class 2A or 3A schools, but only Tipton (Class 2A, No. 4) and Heritage Christian (Class 2A, No. 8) are currently ranked in the top 10 in their respective class.
Johnson said inclement weather played a big role in a lot of those close final scores. As for the loss to Culver Academy, he said, “I don’t know how much that means, one loss in four years. ... The weather was bad.”
The Panthers have been dominant in their own right in Midwest Conference play, having won 47 games in a row and 78 of the last 79.
The Panthers have been led this season by the 13 seniors on their roster, but they’ve also gotten key contributions from younger players.
“We play two freshmen [Sam Kiser, Jacob Lytle] on offense and one on defense [Kiser]. We’ve got some sophomores. We’ve got good senior leaders and young kids, too,” Johnson said.
Kiser has been at quarterback since senior Mitchell Williams went down with a season-ending wrist injury in Week 8.
Joe Miller has rushed for 1,889 yards and 25 touchdowns to lead Pioneer. Matt Dorris adds 800 yards rushing and five TDs.
Miller and Dorris were both hampered in last year’s sectional loss to LCC.
“I think we’re as healthy at running back as we’ve been other than losing Mitchell. Last year Joe was hobbled, and so was Matt Dorris. That hurt us on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense,” Johnson said.
Stephen Whitlock leads the defense with 99 tackles. Josh Lytle has 19 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. Kiser and Kamrin Buell have two interceptions apiece.
Cass (10-1) at North Judson (5-6)
The Class 2A Sectional 26 final between No. 7-ranked Cass and North Judson-San Pierre will mark the first-ever meeting between the teams.
“One really good thing about our sectional is we’re in with a group that we don’t play in the regular season. I think it’d be tough to play the same team twice and it’s especially tough if you’ve beaten a team in a close game. So, it’s exciting — going to a new place, a new opponent,” Cass coach Scott Mannering said.
Cass and North Judson had just one common opponent, Pioneer, during the regular season. In Week 1, Cass rallied from a 12-6 halftime deficit to beat the Panthers 33-12. In Week 5, Pioneer topped North Judson 27-21 in overtime.
North Judson opened 2-0, then lost six straight games before righting the ship with a 21-18 victory over Twin Lakes in the final week of the regular season. The Bluejays then beat Manchester and Rochester in sectional play.
“They have a ton of tradition. I think they really thought this was the year they were going to have an outstanding record. They’ve just had a ton of injuries throughout the year,” Mannering said. “I think there were several weeks in the middle of the season that they were kind of a patchwork offense and defense. They’ve slowly gotten everyone back and I think they’re going to be at about full strength against us. We’re looking a playing a good football team [tonight].”
Four of North Judson’s losses were by eight points or less.
Cass enters the sectional final on a seven-game winning streak. In sectional play, Cass outlasted Bremen 34-28 in two overtimes in the opening round, then whipped Fairfield 46-14 in the semifinal round. Cass scored 43 straight points after Fairfield took a 14-3 lead.
A host of Kings have combined to rush for 3,396 yards, with Drew Shepherd leading the way at 674. Quarterback Sheldon Slusser has 551 yards and 13 touchdowns, Gabe Welch has 478 yards, and Riley Garrett 394. Slusser has passed for 841 yards and 10 TDs with just one interception in 77 pass attempts. His top target is Justen Downhour, with a dozen catches for 343 yards and six TDs.
Payton Young leads the Cass defense with 63.5 tackles, followed by Blake Cain (55.5) and Lucas Knutson (42.5).
“I think we’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Mannering said. “The game at Fairfield might have been our best game of the season. We did get behind, but we played better as the game went on and in the second half, we really took the game over. Our offense probably played as good as it has all year and defensively, we figured things out as the game progressed and we played better each series. By the second half, we were playing much better football. For me, that’s a neat thing to see — when you don’t panic when you’re behind, but you stay with the plan and you figure things out.
“We’ve had our own rash of injuries. We’re fairly thin [in terms of depth], but we have guys who are getting the job done,” Mannering added. “I still think we’re a work in progress, that we can play much better, and hopefully we will [tonight].”
Winamac (8-3) at West Central (10-1)
The Pulaski County rivals are set to meet up yet again on the gridiron, this time with the season and a sectional title on the line.
The last time they met the only thing that went well for the Warriors was they raised nearly $5,000 for the county’s veterans by auctioning off their special camouflage jerseys on Armed Services Night. Winamac committed six turnovers in a 49-7 loss to West Central back on Sept. 21.
But that was six weeks ago. The Warriors bounced back the next week with a 47-25 win over North Judson and have won four of their last five.
“We know we’ve got to eliminate the turnovers and minimize our penalties in order to have a chance,” Winamac coach Tim Roth said.
Both teams are coming off impressive wins. Winamac defeated Hammond Noll 14-10 in an increasingly rare occurrence where a public school defeated a private school in tournament play. Class A No. 8-ranked West Central demolished No. 3-ranked Whiting 43-3 on the road.
“Our best defense [tonight] might be our offense,” Roth said. “We need to eat up the clock and score, and maybe they’ll go in panic mode and force things they don’t want to do. We told the kids they put their pants on just like we do. We have to line up and make plays, and when they make plays make sure they’re not big plays.”
West Central is led by senior quarterback Michael Hamilton (1,828 yards rushing, 19 TDs) and senior fullback Chantz Marlatt (1,388 yards rushing, 22 TDs). In the regular-season game against Winamac, Hamilton rushed for 158 yards on 21 carries and Marlatt had 142 yards rushing and three TDs on 14 attempts.
The last time the two foes met the Warriors installed a new defense, which Roth said backfired. He’s now going to utilize their base defense.
“We’re going to try something different and see if it might work better,” he said. “We put in that special defense and we thought we needed to do that to shut down Mr. Hamilton. We put that in in a week and weren’t used to it. It didn’t go the way we thought it would. On top of our turnovers and giving them a short field, we got frustrated early and missed a lot of assignments which led to big plays for them.
“They’re a pretty good football team. They have two very good players who bring the level of some pretty average players up to good. We’ve got some good players and we’re going to try to combine to take some of that away.”
Junior fullback Tyler Katschke has rushed for 1,328 yards and 17 TDs to lead the Warriors. He was effective against the Trojans in the regular-season matchup, rushing for 119 yards on 21 carries.
Senior quarterback Zach Shidler has passed for 1,014 yards and 12 TDs and rushed for 705 yards and 13 TDs. Junior Levi Schultz has 18 catches for 375 yards and 4 TDs, and sophomore Parker Fox has 12 catches for 311 yards and 3 TDs.
The defense is led by Katschke (112 tackles), Brandon Dickson (114 tackles), Richie Doty (14 tackles for a loss) and Keegan Kasten (89 tackles). Schultz and Shidler each have four interceptions, and Fox has three.
Winamac’s last loss was a month ago at Caston, 20-15.
“The only one I really feel bad about is the Caston loss. It was in crappy weather and we didn’t adjust in the second half. We didn’t play well over there is the best way to describe it. We made stupid penalties that took us out of drives, or we very easily could have won that ballgame.
“Last week coming from behind against Noll was big for us because Noll was a pretty good football team. They had a good quarterback and a humongous line. Their line was as big as Tri-County’s. For us to play as well as we did against that offense, I was pretty pleased with our defense.”