While Whitko looked to make its own statement, Wawasee ran over those intentions in a 20-7 victory Friday night in South Whitley. A huge running game for the Warriors, not enough horses for the Wildcats.
The Warriors piled up 293 yards on the ground and scored all three of its touchdowns running the ball. The first came on a 92-yard scamper by quarterback DJ Semon, who dipped and danced between Whitko defenders before finding a gap on the outside of the pursuit.
In what looked as though it may have been a chess match heading into half as Whitko’s defense began to settle down, Gabe Rhodes found daylight around end for a 20-yard score in the second quarter.
Whitko made the game interesting in the third quarter, making a play on the defensive side of the ball when Connor Stouder jumped a passing lane and picked off Semon’s throw for a 72-yard interception return for a score. The score had been cut to 14-7 and the Wildcats, while not making a lot of headway on offense, were just down one score with a whole lot of momentum.
“We were really happy defensively in learning a new system,” Swender said. “The boys played well at times. Little things, getting back to fundamentals like tackling. We moved the ball offensively in the first half, but we have to hang onto the ball.
“In the first half, we counted up nine different times little things happened that didn’t go our way.”
The ball just seemed to bounce Wawasee’s way most of the night. A booming punt by Derrick Sorensen planted the Wildcats on the four yard line. Whitko was unable to gather a first down, and on the Whitko punt attempt, a bad snap gave Wawasee the ball on the Whitko 10. Just one play later, Sorensen toted the ball into the endzone untouched, and despite a botched extra point attempt, the message had been sent.
“I’ll tell you what, Whitko plays so hard, and they really play hard here,” said Wawasee head coach Tom Wogomon. “We knew those three guys running the ball were going to be the key for us. Gabe really ran hard for us. We knew late, we had to keep running the ball and moving the sticks. Thankfully, we did.”
Sorensen, Rhodes and Semon combined for the rushing output, with both Semon and Sorensen over 100 yards for the Warriors, who had 13 first downs running the ball and just 15 yards through the air.
Whitko gained just 189 total yards, 156 of which on the ground. The Wildcats also had a pair of ‘hold your breath’ moments when quarterback Alex Stoddard and fullback Tanner Hughes went down with injuries. Stoddard injured an ankle in the first half and looked very pedestrian in the second half while Hughes was hurt in the fourth quarter and did not return.
Not having Stoddard in the first half, Whitko actually made its deepest run into Wawasee’s territory, holding the ball inside the 10-yard line. But a pass from backup quarterback Ryan Weigold was tipped near the endzone and landed in Semon’s arms for an interception. Which was the last time Whitko had the ball inside the Wawasee 20.
Swender was worried about his defense as summer practices were mounting, but the lack of punch and patience on offense will force the Wildcats hands with Columbia City calling next week.
“Offensively, we just were jumping and we weren’t very sharp tonight,” Swender said. “There are a lot of things we need to clean up.”
Wogomon’s troops will look to continue to run at will, but will certainly face a tougher test next week with 3A state finalist South Bend St. Joseph coming to Syracuse. Last year’s contest was a defensive slugfest, and next week could prove the same.
“We are taking steps, but we have a monstrous task next week,” Wogomon said of the St. Joe matchup next Friday. “Our kids are excited about the opportunity to play a team that has been to state twice. Now we are going to see if we can make that huge step from week one to week two.”