Wildcat-like upset bid misses
Prior to the start of the season, North Harrison football coach Mark Williamson said moral victories weren’t in the vocab of his locker room.
Friday night, it was obvious the Cougars weren’t looking for those gracious pats on the back. They were in the Class 3A Sectional 31 championship bout with favored Charlestown seeking to win.
Through three quarters, North Harrison was in prime position, leading 7-6. Charlestown, however, got its offense going late, using a pair of Tristan Chester touchdowns to eek out an 18-7 victory on a cold night.
An electric atmosphere surrounded the playing surface in Ramsey, with fans packed in the seats and along the hillside opposite the main stands.
Football at North Harrison began in 1978, but it took until Friday for the program to host a sectional championship game. As a matter of fact, it was only the second appearance in a final for the Cougars. The last came in 2005, a 49-20 loss at Batesville.
Williamson’s bunch proved they belonged in the final, going toe-to-toe with Charlestown, which won its second sectional in its last three tries.
‘They are a good football team,’ the third-year Cougars coach said of Charlestown. ‘When we played them the first time, I said they were the best football team in the conference. I think they are the best football team I’ve seen since I’ve been at North Harrison.’
North Harrison was effective in keeping quiet senior quarterback Jack Phelps’ injury. The signal caller played with a broken right hand, making his throwing abilities non-existent. Phelps, the leader of the offense, played on but shared snaps with junior Austin Nevil and freshman Avery Blocker.
Nevil, the team’s second-leading rusher, took snaps out of the wildcat formation, while Blocker entered during primarily passing downs.
‘We did some things that is hard to defend on the fly,’ Williamson said. ‘I know (Charlestown) was scrambling to adjust. Darin is a good football coach and was able to keep their guys settled down.’
Driving late in the third quarter, Nevil attempted to sneak in a pass out of the wildcat formation. Facing third-and-three at the 29, Nevil faked a run up the middle and lofted a pass toward backfield-mate Sam Best.
Crashing the sneaky play attempt was Charlestown safety Eli Daniel, who leaped to pick off the pass one-handed.
‘That was the biggest play of the game,’ Williamson said. ‘It was third-and-3 and we are in four-down territory. Most of the time, we’re going to get that first down. We thought it was there. Their safeties kept creeping up. (Daniel) is a hell of a player and one of the best in the conference. He made a heck of a play.’
From there, Charlestown’s offense started to roll after being limited to 13 snaps in the opening half. Feeding running back Antonyo Gaddie for much of the drive, Charlestown gobbled up 89 yards in 14 plays to take a 12-7 lead with 7:42 to play.
Key to the drive was out of a time-out when Charlestown elected to go for a first down near midfield on fourth-and-two. Gaddie took the hand-off 15 yards to notch the first down. The drive ended when quarterback Tristan Chester was flushed out of the pocket, heaving the ball to the back of the end zone, finding Daniel.
North Harrison moved the ball on its next drive, including a 15-yard pickup by the stout Best. When the Cougars reached their own 40-yard line, procedural penalties added up. Back-to-back offsides put the run-heavy offense in throwing situations. With 3:46 to play, Blocker’s pass attempt was intercepted by Bradley Laffoon.
Williamson said a combination of the crowd noise and dealing with three different quarterbacks calling snaps played a factor in the penalties.
‘With our quarterback having a broken thumb, we had three different guys giving cadences,’ Williamson said. ‘Even though we’ve been doing it in practice for a while and I don’t know what it is with our stadium, it gets loud. The pre-snap penalties hurt us. Anyone that watches our games knows that’s not us.’
Charlestown utilized the short field and eventually scored when Chester carried the ball in from the 3-yard line with 1:56 to play.
‘Defensively, we played outstanding,’ Williamson said. ‘They started finding some things that worked in their running game. Gaddie, one of the best backs in the conference, we couldn’t stop him late.’
Neither team’s offense put up big numbers. Charlestown was held to 23 first-half yards but finished with 162. North Harrison mustered 155 yards.
During the regular-season meeting, a 47-20 Charlestown win, Chester passed for 201 yards. This time around, the Cougars’ defense was up to the task in the secondary and with pressure. Chester was 3 of 11 for 16 yards.
‘We don’t change anything we do defensively,’ Williamson said. ‘Everyone knows what we’re going to do. We just got better at doing what we do defensively. Next year, we’re going to do the same thing and keep getting better.’
Sophomores continued to develop, including linebackers Evan Goodman (leading tackler with 88) and Ethan Hamby along with cornerback Jake Troxell.
‘We had a bunch of guys that are sophomores growing up,’ Williamson said. ‘We had guys that should be playing JV starting. They grew into varsity players.’
The first half started a bit rocky for the Cougars. On fourth-and-1, they lined up in the wildcat but saw Nevil punt the ball. The play, however, was called back for offsides. After another offsides, the Pirates blocked the punt, taking over at the 11.
Charlestown eventually scored when Gaddie, who finished with 115 yards on 20 carries, went in from the six-yard line.
In the second quarter, North Harrison was able to take advantage of a Charlestown miscue. Gaddie coughed up the ball, allowing Trey Kuerzi to scoop up the pigskin and take it into the Pirates’ territory.
North Harrison picked up a pair of fourth-down tries on the drive that finished with Best scoring from the 4. Phelps split the uprights with the extra point to give the Cougars a 7-6 edge.
Best finished with 91 rushing yards to lead the team. For the season, the junior amassed 1,756 yards on 260 carries, including 14 touchdowns.
The Cougars, however, weren’t able to hang on or add points later in the game.
‘I feel bad for our seniors because they’ve been through so much this year,’ Williamson said. ‘We’ve lost three games on the last play of the game. Another one, we were right there with Corydon at the end, and, of course, we didn’t get to play the Crawford game.’
The players, however, continued to grind.
‘They kept hanging in there and hanging in there,’ Williamson said. ‘I’ve said it over and over. It’s a credit to our parents and coaches for keeping this thing together. I’m proud of them. I tell those seniors that, if this is the worst thing that happens to you, you are going to have a pretty darn good life.’
Charlestown (10-2) advanced in the tournament and will host No. 3 Heritage Hills (11-1) Friday at 8 p.m. in regional play.
North Harrison finished the season with a 4-7 record. Williamson said the Mid-Southern Conference, which features the team in the final, has greatly improved.
‘I think our conference is getting stronger,’ he said. ‘It isn’t a cakewalk. It isn’t the SEC, but it’s not the Mid-Southern of old. I’ll be at Charlestown next week rooting them on.’
The foundation at North Harrison will continue to build. They graduate eight seniors, including Phelps (11 touchdowns), Austin Reynolds (63 tackles, three fumble recoveries) and Dustin Nevil (55 tackles).
Williamson said the solid numbers in the freshmen and sophomore classes are leading to more depth.
‘When we get this program to the point, and we will, it’s getting close, we’ll have a junior-senior class of about 35 players,’ Williamson said. ‘When we have that, we’ll win these kind of games. We’re not there yet. It would have been wonderful to win tonight, but they were the better football team.’
Similar to how the season played out, there won’t be any slowing the program.
‘They are taking pride,’ Williamson said. ‘We won’t quit. We’ll keep chopping wood. They’ll get a few weeks off then we’ll get back at it.’
Charlestown 6 0 0 12 ‘ 18
North Harrison 0 7 0 0 ‘ 7
C ‘ A. Gaddie 6 run (kick failed); NH ‘ S. Best 4 run (J. Phelps kick); C ‘ E. Daniel 7 pass from T. Chester (run failed); C ‘ T. Chester 3 run (run failed).