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NH delivers heart-breaker in Mud Bowl, 13-6

NH delivers heart-breaker in Mud Bowl, 13-6
NH delivers heart-breaker in Mud Bowl, 13-6
The senior football players for North Harrison gathered at midfield with the traveling "Big Cat Classic" trophy after Friday night's 13-6 win over county-rival Corydon Central. Gary Fessel's 49-yard touchdown run with :45 left in the game clinched the Cougars' victory. (Photo by Randy West)

Much ado had been made this season about the Corydon Central football team’s defense. The Panthers’ stinginess against the run was a big reason for their three victories this year. However, North Harrison made its own statement about “D” at Friday night’s annual Big Cat Classic.
With an artic-like wind powering sheets of rain onto what once resembled turf, the Cougars held the visitors to just 91 yards of total offense and one first down in a thrilling, last-minute,13-6 victory over their rival.
With the score knotted up at 6-6 in the fourth, North Harrison’s star running back, Gary Fessel, broke through Corydon’s secondary for a 49-yard touchdown run for the game-winner with only 45 ticks of the clock remaining.
Fessel turned out to be a classic mudder: the Cougar senior churned out an amazing 244 of his team’s 288 total yards of offense and scored both touchdowns for the hosts.
Despite miserable running conditions, Fessel carried the ball 38 times for 233 yards and caught a pass for 11 yards. Even more amazing was that as the field got worse, Fessel got better. He had just 52 yards of rushing at the half.
“I love that kind of weather,” said Fessel. “Whenever it’s real hot, I just get hot and tired. But when it’s cold, I just could go all night. (The ball) was pretty slick, but I just held onto it with both hands.
“It was a counter,” Fessel said of the winning play. “I just cut back to the other side, and they weren’t expecting me over there. I was hoping there was no flag. I was just happy.”
North coach Dan Haskell said Fessel’s last touchdown came with some good help from fellow running back James Thompson.
“We ran a little counter out of the wishbone,” Haskell said. “We had a good fake by J.T., a tremendous fake. I don’t think they knew where the ball was going. That opened up the possibility, and when Gary got out, he was gone. There was a couple of times tonight where we thought he was gone, and they chased him down, but that one just happened to be the one.”
The Cougars (2-6, 1-3 Mid-Southern Conference) snapped a six-game skid while pushing their record over Corydon to 19-7 and a 17-7 mark in the Big Cat Classic.
The cross-county opponents have met twice in sectional play.
North dominated the Panthers (3-5, 1-3 M.S.C.) statistically. Corydon’s senior running back Josh Spencer gained 80 yards rushing, but his teammates only mustered 15 yards of offense on the night, including a late second-quarter, 14-yard TD catch by Ryan Schilmiller from Spencer.
Corydon coach Darin Ward said the wind and rain were more to North Harrison’s favor.
“The conditions were tough,” he said. “With the weather conditions, and we’re more than a one-dimensional team, we need to be able to throw the ball and do a lot of play-action stuff. It was difficult in these conditions.
“They’re more of a pounding team and got the momentum in the second half. With the wind, we were trying to get it into overtime and see what happens.”
Neither club got much of anything going in the first quarter. Fessel had a touchdown called back because of a holding penalty, and Corydon coughed up the ball on its first offensive play. The period ended in a scoreless tie.
Reflecting the weather, things were just as ugly in the second set.
Spencer rushed for a 48-yard gain and his team’s only first down of the contest before North stuffed the Panthers at the 20.
The Cougars gave the ball right back when Adam Cooper intercepted a Greg Hamilton pass. After Cooper returned the ball 12 yards, the Panthers hit pay-dirt four plays later on a half-back pass from Spencer to the 6-4 Schilmiller, who outjumped three North defenders for the score with 1:43 left in the half. Justin McPherson’s extra-point kick was blocked by Josh Jones.
After trading possessions, the Cougars started a drive at their own 4-yard line and took the ball to the 14 for Fessel’s scoring run. He went left, then right and through several Panthers defenders before finally stretching the ball out across the goal line. That tied the game at 6-6 at the end of three.
The Cougars forced a punt to start the final set and dodged a bullet midway through the possession when Fessel was hit behind the line and looked as if he’d fumbled the ball at the Panthers’ 37. One official signaled for Corydon; the other for North Harrison. After some discussion between the referees, North retained the ball.
A big sack by Corydon’s Jonathon Windell served as a bit of justice for the Panthers, who got the ball back two plays later,
Unfortunately for the visitors, Lee Childers came up with a huge interception on McPherson and returned the ball 14 yards to the 26.
The Cougars were unable to move the ball and gave it up to Corydon, which likewise failed to move the ball and were forced to punt.
With 1:32 left in the contest, Fessel raced from the Cougars’ 44 to Corydon’s 49. On the next snap, he scored.
Corydon’s Corey Thatcher took the kickoff to the 36. Four plays and 12 seconds weren’t quite enough to give the Panthers a chance to end a three-game losing streak in the Big Cats Classic.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Haskell told his team after the game. “Cold night, big night, rainy night, big night. Just a big night. A win, we keep the trophy. The defense did a tremendous job. We let down one time down here and they scored on us. The defense just played exceptionally well tonight.”
“I am so proud of the way these guys came together this week,” Haskell said. “They’ve been struggling, struggling, struggling, and they got up and did the job. I think the guys are finally getting their act together as a team. I’m looking forward to next Friday and beyond that. I believe we’re starting to come into our own. Tonight showed me they were coming out to play football. It was a sloppy night to run the ball, and defense had to stick it hard to win this ball game.”
Ward said the conditions failed to allow his team go use their game plan but he gave credit to Fessel on his big performance.
“We’ve got to be able to throw the football against their running game. Gary’s a great football player. He’s one of the best backs we’ve seen all year. He just kept pounding and kept pounding. I don’t make comparisons between those two (Fessel and Spencer). He’s just a really fine football player.
“We played hard and the kids fought, and it’s tough coming up here to play, too. The weather conditions were in their favor. No doubt about that. It’s a tough place to play.”
Rounding out the stats, North gained 15 first downs and was penalized twice for 20 yards. Corydon was hit with two penalties for 10 yards and was 5-11 with one interception on passing.
Matt Jones gained 20 yards rushing for the Cougars and Clinton Smith hauled in one pass for 22 yards.
For the Panthers, Spencer finished with 80 yards and Nevin Dunaway caught three passes for seven yards.