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Early offense, late defense lift Cougars

Early offense, late defense lift Cougars
Early offense, late defense lift Cougars
North Harrison junior running back Sawyer Wetzel (8) maneuvers around Providence’s defense to score a rushing touchdown during the Cougars’ regular-season finale against the Pioneers on Friday. Wetzel recorded 167 yard on 24 carries, rushing for three touchdowns in the first half. Photo by Brandon Miniard
Brandon Miniard, Sports Writer, [email protected]

The threat of thunderstorms Friday night led to multiple football games throughout the Kentuckiana area being tweaked. The proactive scheduling did little to stop the monsoon that assaulted Clarksville shortly after 5 p.m.

Mother Nature apparently was a fan of either the North Harrison or Providence football team as the rain drenching Sartini field at Providence ceased just minutes before the 6 p.m. kickoff (moved up an hour from the initial 7 p.m. start time). While a few claps of thunder persisted in the distance, the threat of additional storms had passed by the time the Cougars and Pioneers took the field for their regular-season finales.

Riding off a come-back victory over South Spencer a week ago, the Cougars utilized an early scoring assault in the first half followed by timely defense in the second half to finish the regular season with a 28-6 victory over the host Pioneers.

“We wanted to pound on (Providence), our bigger bodies against their smaller bodies, and wear them down, which we did,” Cougars’ head coach Mark Williamson said. “Offensively, defensively, special teams, I think this was our best overall game.”

The Cougars looked to be in trouble early on fourth and seven before senior quarterback Colt Beach targeted junior wide receiver Kaleb Kellems for a potential 12-yard pass. Despite the pass being rejected initially, a block in the back by Pioneers defensive back Brian Wall resulted in a Cougars’ first down. While normally hindered by penalties, junior running back Sawyer Wetzel made the Pioneers’ penalty work in the Cougars’ favor as he slipped through the middle for a 13-yard touchdown run.

While the score was the only offensive action of the first quarter, Wetzel continued the assault more than a minute into the second quarter when he again broke through the middle before taking the rock to the house for a 46-yard rushing score. Already up 14-0 with just over four minutes to go in the half, Wetzel struck once more when he slipped through another opening up the middle before traveling 34 yards into the end zone. With his third successful PAT in as many tries, junior kicker Landon McIntire helped put the Cougars up 21-0.

With two minutes left in the period, the Pioneers were able to break into the scoreboard when quarterback Carter Lannan slipped into the Cougars’ end zone on a 15-yard rushing touchdown. The subsequent PAT failed, forcing the Pioneers into the half-time break having just broken into the scoring column as they trailed the Cougars 21-6.

“We were pretty much wearing (Providence) down because they had a bunch of young guys all over the field,” Beach said. “We had a bunch of veterans here trying to pound them in, get them tired and start running down the field.”

The second half seemed like the beginning of a far different game as the Pioneers were able to repel the Cougars’ offense for the entire third quarter. What little chances the Cougars had to score in the period bore no fruit, including when senior linebacker Colten Hickman intercepted a Lannan pass, only for the Cougars to fumble the ball away on the very next play.

“I thought Providence panicked a little and started throwing the ball, but there was nothing new that they did in the second half offensively,” Williamson said. “Defensively, they adjusted and started pinching and slowing us down.”

The fourth quarter felt like a play-off atmosphere despite the score as the Pioneers had multiple chances to score. The Cougars’ offense continued to struggle with both scoring and penalties, at one point finding themselves backed near their end zone. The Pioneers’ offense felt equally pressured late in the period, including when senior defensive lineman Nick Gunter broke through to sack Lannan on second and five.

Not long after Gunter’s key sack, the Cougars’ defense came through again after pushing the Pioneers’ offense deep into the backfield. Lannan tried for a long pass, only for the pigskin to find the hands of Cougars’ junior defensive back Riley Schneider before he trotted into the end zone for a long interception return.

The tension over the Cougars lifted after the score, even more so when senior center Garrett Schroeder forced the Pioneers’ second interception in as many drives. Making it all the way to the Pioneers’ one-yard line with less than a minute to go, the Cougars showed mercy by taking a knee before leaving with another win, their third over the last four ballgames.

“Defense played very well because we had a couple of turnovers and three interceptions. Two of them weren’t in the heat of the battle; the first one was because (Providence) was down 21-6 and marching down the field,” Williamson said. “Then Gunter comes up with the big sack and Schneider runs one back. This was the best game overall, even though it’s not the best our offense played.”

The Cougars’ offense once again came through as it recorded 342 total yards, notching at least 300 offensive yards for the fourth straight week. Leading the way for the Cougars was Wetzel, once again running wild on the opposing defense as he ran for 167 rushing yards on 24 carries. Beach had one of his best performances of the season, going 8 for 10 with 110 passing yards along with 31 rushing yards on seven carries.

The Pioneers struggled on the offensive end, recording only 205 total yards of offense. Over half of that offensive production came courtesy of Lannan, who recorded 113 total yards (96 passing, 17 rushing). In the air, Lannan went 7 for 16 but threw for three interceptions.

While the Cougars had arguably their greatest overall performance, their biggest Achilles heel, penalties, was once again an issue.

“What really slows us down is that we have another game where we had close to 100 yards in penalties. No team can go third and 33 backed up on their own goal line. We had a first down, then got back-to-back penalties of chop block, which was 15 and then a holding which was 10,” Williamson said. “It drives me crazy. We’ve never been a penalized team until the second half of last year, and it’s carried over into this year.”

After concluding the regular season with their third victory over their final four contests, the Cougars (4-5, 2-5 MSC) will venture to Lincoln City on Friday to face Heritage Hills (7-2) in the first round of the Indiana High School Athletic Association sectional at 7:30 p.m. With a victory, the Cougars could potentially confront rival Corydon Central in the semifinals should the Panthers (0-8, 0-6 MSC) defeat Evansville Bosse (2-7). The meeting would be the first time the county rivals squared off in the postseason since 2017.

“We’re pretty excited because we got a chance to make a run to the sectional championship,” Hickman said. “The juniors and seniors, we’ve always played together, so we’re looking forward to hopefully winning this thing.”

North Harrison               7   14     0     7 – 28

Providence                     0     6     0     0 –   6

North Harrison – Sawyer Wetzel 13 yd run (Landon McIntire PAT); North Harrison – Wetzel 46 yd run (McIntire PAT); North Harrison – Wetzel 34 yd run (McIntire PAT); Providence – Lannan 15 yd run (PAT failed); North Harrison – Garrett Schroeder interception return (McIntire PAT).