The Tigers, thanks to that inspirational history lesson and a second-half rally, will now get to play for a conference championship in the future.
That future arrives next Friday night.
Warsaw warmed the hearts of its faithful fans who braved a bone-chilling rainy and windy night at Jim Andrews Field with a thrilling 17-10 overtime Northern Lakes Conference victory over the Panthers.
The Tigers improve to 6-2 overall, but more importantly 5-1 in the NLC. Concord, who the Tigers host next Friday night in the regular-season finale, also sits at 5-1 as does Plymouth. Concord beat Northridge 56-28 and Plymouth topped Goshen 28-16 in league play Friday night. Concord has won the last two NLC titles and had won 18 in a row in the league until a loss to Plymouth last week.
“One more win,” screamed Jensen to his team in his short, but loud post game message. “One more win for a conference championship.”
Tiger quarterback Jake Mangas made his first varsity start a memorable one by rallying his team from a 10-0 halftime deficit. The sophomore with a cool belying his youth hit Seth Fouts with a four-yard touchdown pass on the third play of overtime to give his team the lead. Mangas got the nod with starter Austin Head sidelined with a shoulder injury sustained last week in a 14-13 NLC loss at Wawasee. Mangas replaced Head in that game, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in the second half.
The Warsaw defense, appropriately enough, then sealed the deal. The Tigers stopped the Panthers on their possession in the extra session, forcing three incompletions, sandwiched around a huge play by Zach Shepler and Ben Plummer for a two-yard loss. The final play saw NorthWood quarterback Will Kirkwood overthrow his receiver in the back corner of the end zone, setting off a wild Warsaw celebration.
The victory for Warsaw was the first at NorthWood since 2000. The Tigers had lost five in a row in Nappanee.
“WOW,” was the first word out of Jensen’s mouth when he met the media. “I have a lot of witnesses and I told our kids at halftime tonight that 12 years ago we were down 14-0 at halftime and then we got it to overtime and gave Brad Seiss a chance to win it,” related Jensen of his message at intermission. “It was at the same end as we scored tonight in overtime.
“We wanted to play defense first in overtime and that didn’t work out (after NorthWood won the toss and opted to play defense first). But, we wanted to play at the same end as in 2000.
“I’m just so proud of these guys. My hat’s off to them. They believed, never gave up and made plays. They’re great kids. The thing is that Warsaw football matters to them.
“We get to play for a championship next week. You can’t ask for more than that.”
The Tigers tied the contest with just 4.4 seconds left in intermission. Sophomore Caleb Klusman drilled a clutch, 20-yard field goal to make it 10-10 to force overtime.
The kick came after Mangas drove his team from its own 20 to the NorthWood two-yard line in the final 3:17. The biggest play of the night came as he hit senior Taylor Cone on a nine-yard pass play to convert a fourth and four at the NorthWood 36. Cone later made a tremendous diving catch in the back corner of the end zone just two plays before the tying field goal, but the officials ruled he was out of bounds.
The biggest heroes of the night came on the defensive side of the football for the Tigers. Led by the likes of Zach Shepler and Ben Plummer, the Warsaw defense saved the night. The Tigers stopped NorthWood on a fourth-and-goal play at the Tigers one yard line with 2:10 to play in the first half to keep it at 10-0. Warsaw then stopped the Panthers at the Tiger 13 with 3:17 left in the game to force a 30-yard field goal try that was wide left.
“Our defense really kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win,” Jensen said. “That goal line stand before halftime was huge. The way both teams ran the ball there were not going to be a lot of chances to have the ball and score.
“This was just a great team win. Everyone did their job.”
NorthWood, which saw its four-game win streak snapped to drop to 4-4 overall and 4-2 in the NLC, could have been up more than just 10-0 at halftime. The Tigers lost a fumble, threw an interception and then had a high snap on a punt attempt that Cone did a great job to catch but then fell to turn the ball over on their first three possessions of the game.
Warsaw made a simple, yet smart and effective offensive adjustment at halftime. The Tigers went to a two tight-end set in the second half and were able to get star running back Tristan McClone going after he managed just 42 yards in the opening half.
“The two tights paid off,” said Jensen of the change. “We were able to spread them out and go North and South better.”
Warsaw got right back in the game on the opening possession of the third quarter. The Tigers went 59 yards on 10 plays for a score. Mangas, facing a fourth-and-five, made a perfect pump fake and then tossed a 22-yard scoring strike to junior Conner McCammack, who made a fine finger-tip grab down the left sideline for the touchdown to cut the Panther lead to 10-7.
Junior standout McClone, who entered the game fourth in the state in rushing with 1,343 yards, led Warsaw with 38 carries for 150 yards. He now has 1,493 yards, quickly approaching the single-season school record of 1,652 set by Rod Wildman in 1972.
Tanner Cleveland, a promising freshman tailback, gained 88 yards on 22 carries for NorthWood. Junior quarterback Will Kirkwood added 79 yards on nine carries, including a 20-yard touchdown run in a 10-point opening quarter for the hosts.
Cone had an interception for the Tigers, who lost the turnover battle 3-1. Merle Mullet and Blake Cleveland each had a fumble recovery and Dylan Risser an interception to lead the Panthers.
Warsaw hosts Concord and NorthWood plays at Plymouth in NLC and regular-season finales next Friday night.