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Second-quarter struggles cost NH against Patriots

Second-quarter struggles cost NH against Patriots
Second-quarter struggles cost NH against Patriots
Brandon Miniard North Harrison junior running back Sawyer Wetzel, left, tries to avoid being taken to the ground by Heritage Hills’ defenders during the Cougars’ first-round matchup in the IHSAA Class 3A Sectional 32 on Friday. Photo by Brandon Miniard
Brandon Miniard, Sports Writer, [email protected]

As the regular season drew to a close, the North Harrison football team looked like a team anew.

After starting the 2021 campaign 1-4, the Cougars made slow yet steady adjustments for the second half, winning three of their final four ballgames to finish the regular season at 4-5. While the record itself is not outstanding, the Cougars had renewed confidence as they prepared for the postseason.

Their improvements throughout the season were put to the test Friday when they traveled to Lincoln City to confront Class 3A No. 15 Heritage Hills in the first round of the Indiana High School Athletic Association Class 3A Sectional 32. The two have previously met on the gridiron three times, with the Patriots taking all three contests.

The last time these two teams met, in 2010, the Patriots blew by the Cougars 49-7. Exactly 11 years later, little changed as the Patriots used a 17-point assault in the second quarter to defeat the Cougars 31-18.

Receiving the opening kick from the Patriots, the Cougars played similarly to years’ past as they took over half the period to march down the field despite starting the game with a penalty. Even when down on third and 12, senior quarterback Colt Beach prolonged the drive after finding junior running back Sawyer Wetzel for a 57-yard pass that brought the Cougars inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line. After advancing to the goal line, Beach took matters into his own hands as he pushed back the Patriots’ defensive line just enough to score on the one-yard rushing touchdown.

“We wanted to minimize the possession, so we wanted to run the clock and time possession drives,” Cougars’ skipper Mark Williamson said. “Our first drive worked out beautifully. We took about 6-1/2 minutes off the clock and scored, got three or four first downs. (Heritage Hills) jumped on the extra point, so we tried to go for two.”

The Cougars’ PAT attempt was foiled by a penalty on the Patriots, which the former ultimately accepted before trying in vain to convert on a two-point conversion. Those two points would have come in handy as the Patriots made their way down the field before tying the contest on a Shane Staples 10-yard rushing score with under two minutes to go in the period. After kicker Ethan Hill launched the ball through the uprights, the Patriots ended the first quarter with a 7-6 advantage.

Due to ending the first quarter on fourth and eight, the Cougars started the second period by punting. The Patriots took advantage of the opportunity early when Staples broke through the Cougars’ defense before taking the ball to the house on a 41-yard rushing touchdown.

While down 14-6, the Cougars looked primed to answer as they marched their way to the Patriots’ 30-yard line. Looking to pass, Beach found himself suddenly pressured by the Patriots’ defense before fumbling the football. Much to the Cougars’ dismay, Patriots’ defensive back Brayden Foertsch recovered the pigskin before traveling 70 yards to the Cougars’ end zone on a back-breaking defensive touchdown.

“It was a big deflation; we had a drive going, we were running an isolation play off tackle and the ball barely clipped our fullback,” Williamson said. “He was probably running just a little too tight; we fumbled. Beach couldn’t recover it, and (Foertsch) ran it back. That was the play of the game that deflated us and got (Heritage Hills) going. I’m not saying we win if that doesn’t happen, but that was a huge play.”

With less than three minutes to go in the half, the Cougars’ defense managed to keep the Patriots’ offense a safe distance from the end zone. With the powerful right leg of Hill, the Patriots were able to get something out of the drive as he delivered a 38-yard field goal, allowing the Patriots to retreat to the locker room with a 24-6 edge.

Despite having a comfortable lead going into the second half, the Patriots weren’t done scoring just yet. Just two minutes into the third quarter, Luke Rickelman joined the Patriots’ scoring barrage by taking the rock into the end zone for a 10-yard run. Following Hill’s fourth PAT of the evening, the Patriots felt even more comfortable behind a 31-6 lead.

The Cougars showed their resolve in the final minutes of the contest, starting when Beach found junior wide receiver Kaleb Kellems for a 26-yard touchdown pass with just over four minutes to go in the quarter. Fast forward to halfway through the fourth quarter when Beach once again took matters into his own hands as he mustered another two-yard rushing score.

The Cougars’ late surge did little more than shrink the deficit as their play-off hopes and season both came to an end as the Patriots advanced courtesy of the 31-18 victory. The loss puts an end to the careers of 11 seniors: Beach, running backs Colten Hickman, Chance Allen, Nick Gunter and Michael Lone, tight end Brodey Miller and linemen Garrett Schroder, Noah Marrs, Landon King, Seth Kendall and Cody Cottrell.

Beach went out fighting in his final contest on the gridiron, going 11 for 20 with 181 yards and a passing touchdown. He was also strong on the ground with 20 rushing yards on nine carries, two of which resulted in rushing touchdowns. Wetzel once again led the ground game as he notched 92 yards on 21 carries.

“We wanted to go out there and hit (Heritage Hills) where it hurts,” Beach said. “We tried to do what we do best, which is running the ball, but they were slowing us down a little bit.”

Despite notching more total offensive yards than the Patriots, 307 to 257, the Patriots ran wild on the Cougars’ defense. Out of the Patriots’ 248 rushing yards, 112 came courtesy of Staples along with a pair of rushing scores on just 13 carries. Rickelman followed with 76 yards on 10 carries, including a rushing touchdown.

The loss marks the end of what has been an unusual and frustrating season for Williamson, whose past Cougars squads have been noted for their grinding play style that included few penalties. Following the game, Williamson revealed that the Cougars’ struggles throughout the season did not stem solely from on-the-field deficiencies.

“We’ve gotten away from harsher discipline in regard to things like the weight room, and the culture of this program has taken a dip as far as work ethic,” Williamson admitted. “We’ve got eight months to work on that, and I promise you all the coaches will be involved with that, not just myself.”

While the next eight months before pre-season action will be long for the Cougars (4-6), there is optimism as the current senior class makes way for a number of junior varsity players to make their case for playing time next year. Among them is freshman quarterback David Langdon, who is expected by a few teammates to be named QB1 in 2022.

“Going into next season, we got a quarterback (in Langdon) who’s gonna be a sophomore; he’s gotta get stronger, and we need a new line,” Kellems said. “We’ve got a couple of guys coming up from JV, and I think we’re gonna be a lot better next year.”

North Harrison                6     0     6     6 – 18

Heritage Hills                   7   17     7     0 – 31

North Harrison – Colt Beach 1 yd run (2-PT conversion failed); Heritage Hills – Shane Staples 16 yd run (Ethan Hill PAT); Heritage Hills – Staples 41 yd run (Hill PAT); Heritage Hills – Brayden Foertsch 70 yd fumble recovery (Hill PAT); Heritage Hills – Hill 38 yd field goal; Heritage Hills – Luke Rickelman 10 yd run (Hill PAT); North Harrison – Kaleb Kellems 26 yd pass from Beach (2-PT conversion failed); North Harrison – Beach 2 yd run (2-PT conversion failed).