By Tribune sports staff
Every team gets a fresh start today whether they need one or not.
Teams that have enjoyed success have to prove it all over again in the IHSAA football tournament, and teams that struggled aren’t weighed down by any baggage. The only thing that matters now is surviving the opponent in front of you tonight. If you don’t, you turn in your gear.
Kokomo had a solid 6-3 campaign but count the Wildkats among those eager for a clean slate. The Wildkats finished 5-2 in the North Central Conference, dropping league games for the first time in the six-season tenure of Brett Colby. Kokomo lost last week to Anderson to close the regular season, leaving a bad taste in the players’ mouths.
“We had a long talk on Monday at the meeting about this season, kind of disappointing what’s happened,” Colby said. “This is kind of a different flavor that we went into the tournament with. Now it’s time to make amends for some of the things that have happened to you and start over. I think they’re kind of anxious for the new start. We’ve had a good week of practice. They seem pretty upbeat and fired up.”
Kokomo hosts Fort Wayne Wayne tonight in Class 5A sectional play. In Class 2A, Eastern hosts Delphi, Taylor hosts Northwestern, No. 7-ranked Cass hosts Bremen, and No. 4 Tipton hosts Seeger. In Class 3A, Western hosts Maconaquah while Peru visits Eastbrook. In Class A, No. 10 Tri-Central hosts Wes-Del, Carroll visits Clinton Prairie, and Clinton Central visits Caston.
F.W. Wayne (1-8) at Kokomo (6-3)
The Wildkats look to get back on track with a good performance against a familiar opponent. Kokomo beat Wayne 52-0 last season in sectional play, and the squads will begin a series next year.
“We’re not worried about what their record is,” Colby said. “They play good competition up there. We’re playing them next year Week 2. We know they’re better than they were last year. I think us focusing on us and worrying about us is what we need to do.”
Conference losses to Richmond and Anderson were frustrating, but will serve as good preparation for tonight’s game. The Generals will stress the Wildkats’ secondary with a pass-first attack and a quarterback that won’t hesitate to tuck and run.
“They’re awfully fast and athletic,” Colby said of Wayne. “They want to throw but they have some good running backs to go along with that. They spread the field out. We’re going to have to tackle in space and make plays in open field, cover receivers well and get a pass rush.”
Colby said the Generals drop back to pass about twice as often as they run.
“They’re total spread, shotgun, four or five wide every play,” he said. He likened the Generals’ offense to those run by North Central Conference foes Huntington North, Richmond and Anderson. Last week’s loss to Anderson showed the Kats some things they needed to work on this week as they prepared for tonight’s game against Wayne.
“We’re changing up coverages, we’re disguising coverages, we’re doing little things a little different defensively,” Colby said.
Starting quarterback Michael Lovett has passed for 402 for Wayne, while Jaylon Thomas has thrown for 432 yards. Zach Ryan (19 receptions) and Keion Power (15 receptions) each have 335 receiving yards. Austin Yarbro has run for 263 yards and Marlon Rogers-Finche has 235.
“We need to compete for the ball when it’s in the air,” Colby emphasized. “We have to go up and make plays on the football. When the ball is in the air coming their way, they need to make plays. We want to get pressure on the passer and make him feel a little harried and rushed.
“The problem is the kid’s a runner, he’s a scrambler. He will make you pay if you don’t have people sitting there and keeping an eye on him when he’s in the pocket. You have to take a guy out of pass coverage [to do that]. He puts a lot of pressure on your defense in that aspect because he will pull down and go any play.”
Tayler Persons leads the Wildkat defense with 77 tackles, followed by Dylan Orbaugh (54) and Fletcher Miller (49). Persons also has a team-high three interceptions.
Michael Copeland leads the Wildkats’ offensive attack, with an area-best 1,252 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Bo Baker has scored a dozen times and rushed for 791 yards, and quarterback Persons has run for 289 and seven scores.
Maconaquah (3-6) at Western (4-5)
The Panthers ended the regular season with a one-point loss to Class 2A No. 7-ranked Cass a week ago, a sign to coach Nate Andrews that, despite the loss, strides in the right direction are being made by his squad.
“We’ve improved a little bit as the season’s gone on,” Andrews said. “We played fairly inspired against Cass. Sometimes that’s tough to do when people think you’re not playing for much, when the conference championship has already been decided and things like that. So, it’s a credit to our kids for going out and competing and playing hard for four quarters.”
Mid-Indiana Conference foes Western and Maconaquah meet up tonight for the second time this season. Western defeated Mac 49-27 during the regular season on Sept. 14 in Bunker Hill in a game where the Panthers held a slim 8-point lead with 2:20 to play.
Western finished off the game with an interception return TD and kickoff return TD after Maconaquah kept things interesting with a pair of kickoff return TDs of its own.
“I was really impressed with how Maconaquah played in that first matchup,” Andrews said. “It was a seesaw game; it wasn’t like we got up by a couple scores and let them back into. It got to a point where we thought we were really going to put them away and just couldn’t quite get it done because they kept competing. It’s a game where they’re fairly familiar with us and we’re fairly familiar with them. It’s always difficult to play somebody twice, but that’s what we have. So, we’re looking forward to this playoff game.”
The Panthers are led by two of the area’s top running backs in seniors James Davis and Hudson Featherstone. Davis ranks fifth in the area in rushing with 1,110 yards and 10 TDs on 162 carries, while Featherstone has added a nice complement with 869 yards and 11 TDs on 148 carries. In the first matchup with the Braves, Davis (241 yards, three TDs) and Featherstone (179 yards, one TD) both boasted huge games.
“More than anything else, we need to worry about what we do,” Andrews said. “We need to execute. I’m looking for a game where we really put things together in terms of execution. I’m not sure we’ve had that really all year, at least to the point where we want to have it.”
Cody Hicks leads the Braves’ offense with 831 yards rushing and seven TDs on 123 carries. Quarterback Kyle Dinn had completed 59 of 126 passes for 901 yards and five TDs this season. Dinn threw for 190 yards and a TD in Maconaquah’s regular season matchup with Western.
Northwestern (7-2) at Taylor (0-9)
The Tigers are looking for a sharper performance this week despite a lopsided win over Eastern (35-6) in the regular season finale. Coach John Hendryx thought his team looked sluggish at times in the victory.
“We had a long talk after the Eastern game,” Hendryx said. “I think it went well and was positive. They understand they don’t have a lot [more] opportunities to play this game. We need to play them the right way because you can’t get them back. I think they understood that. We have a senior class that knows the clock’s ticking. They know they need to go out and enjoy it and play with enthusiasm because their chances of coming out and getting things done on Fridays are about over for them.”
Like Western and Maconaquah, the Purple Tigers and Titans will meet up for the second time this season. Northwestern topped Taylor going away, 54-13, during the regular season clash on Sept. 14 at Northwestern, a game in which the Tigers clung to a 14-7 lead at halftime.
“I know we saw some knew things, but the bottom line is that it was 14-7,” Hendryx said. “They are very well coached. I know they haven’t won any games, but I know [Taylor coach] Eric [Davis] very well and they are very well coached. They’ll have some formations and things I guarantee we haven’t seen. That’s what they did to us the first time and it gave us some problems. It will probably happen again and we just have to adjust on the fly.”
Northwestern boasts a potent balanced attack on offense, scoring 32 points per game while nearly racking up 400 yards of total offense per outing. The Tigers are led by the senior triumvirate of fullback Brandon Curry, wing Trenton Brazel and QB Trevor Richmond. Curry has run for 989 yards and 10 TDs on 143 carries while Richmond has completed 71 of 133 passes for 1,199 yards and 13 TDs. Brazel is a dual threat, running for 592 yards and seven TDs on 64 attempts while leading the team in receiving with 35 catches for 506 yards and seven more scores.
“People have had trouble stopping us,” Hendryx said. “We’ve averaged around 400 yards a game offensively, even in our two losses. But, our mistakes kill us. We can’t have penalties and we can’t have turnovers. We’ve told the kids for a long time our worst enemy is ourselves. You look at how many times we punted for the season — it’s unbelievable. We don’t punt the ball much because we don’t get stopped much. We’ve moved the ball pretty much every Friday night, but we have to keep ourselves out of those first-and-20s with silly penalties.”
Senior Josh Foust leads the Titans with 594 yards and five TDs on the ground on 100 carries. QB Dayne Tomlinson ran for 116 yards and two TDs against the Tigers during the regular season.
Delphi (3-6) at Eastern (1-9)
The Oracles and Comets will meet up tonight for the first time since 2005, when Delphi took a 28-18 road victory in the opening round of sectional play.
Eastern coach Josh Edwards is excited to see his kids have the slate wiped clean after a disappointing regular season.
“The learning curve has been big for us this year,” Edwards said. “We didn’t expect it to be quite this big, but playing mostly sophomores at our skill positions has been an adjustment. The future is definitely bright, but we’d like these kids to get a little bit of experience in the tournament and get a game under their belts and see what happens if we can steal one here and move forward.”
Sophomore tailback Papee Byers has been a bright spot for the Comets this season. He ranks sixth in the area with 1,010 yards on the ground on 187 carries, finding the end zone on the ground five times. Senior Hayden Vint leads Eastern’s receivers with 20 catches for 176 yards.
Delphi is led by junior running back Garrett Johnson, who enters tonight with 638 yards and six TDs on the ground on 123 carries. Sophomore Mason Lane leads the team in receiving with 16 grabs for 255 yards and 1 TD. Junior QB Jason Sterrett is 66 of 166 passing for 829 yards, four TDs and 14 interceptions.
“They play in a tough conference and play a tough schedule every week like we do,” Edwards said of Delphi, which plays in the Hoosier Conference. “They’ve been able to register three wins. They do a good job of completing passes when they have to. That’s something we’ve struggled with in crunch time, being able to make clutch third-down conversions. I think Delphi poses some nice threats. I like their skill kids and they have a good, young quarterback. They don’t quit and are constantly going from Quarter 1 to Quarter 4.”
Bremen (6-3) at Cass (8-1)
The Class 2A No. 7 Kings enter on a five-game winning streak after their lone blemish at Class 3A No. 4 Hamilton Heights. They were able to pull out a hard-fought 21-20 win over Western last week.
“Western’s is a better team than their record, and I can attest to that,” Cass coach Scott Mannering said. “We did not play great. We turned the ball over and had some real lapses on defense, but it was a good game for us. We had some tough breaks but were able to make plays at the end to get the lead and hold on. It was a really good win for us going into the tournament.”
The Bremen matchup is a rematch of last year’s sectional final in which the Lions won at home, 28-6, in a hard-fought game in which the Kings showed a lot of promise. Bremen went on to win at Wheeler for the regional title before falling at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers 35-21 in a semistate contest.
The Lions graduated a lot of seniors from last year’s team but are still strong according to Mannering. Their losses are to Class 4A No. 10 New Prairie (41-14), Class 3A No. 1 Jimtown (21-6) and Tippecanoe Valley (21-7).
“They graduated a really good class last year, and everyone thought they’d be down, but they’ve had a very competitive team this year,” Mannering said. “The thing that impresses me about them is they’ve been really good against the best teams on their schedule. They had a close game against Jimtown, they beat Plymouth pretty bad. They’re a typical Bremen team. They’re a good program team. They’re well coached and physical. They play good defense.”
The Lions again look to be a balanced team, as Kai Slough has passed for 914 yards and nine touchdowns, and Reid Zellmer has rushed for 719 yards and nine TDs.
Mannering said the Lions don’t have quite the passing attack they had a year ago but are still dangerous through the air.
“They’re not throwing like that yet, but they’re athletic and have very capable people,” he said. “Bremen is the same team they’ve been since 1994, they’re just good. They’re not very fancy. They play old-school football and do it real well.”
Drew Shepherd has rushed for 644 yards and eight TDs to lead the Kings. Sheldon Slusser has passed for 691 yards and eight TDs with just one interception. Justen Downhour is the leading receiver with 12 catches for 343 yards and six TDs. Shepherd and Downhour lead a ball-hawking defense with five interceptions apiece. Garrett Riley has three interceptions. Payton Young is the leading tackler.