Now, it must figure out a way to exorcise its most recent demons.
Every member of the Wawasee program knows exactly what NorthWood did on Oct. 21, 2011. A favored Wawasee team, which had beaten NorthWood 20-14 at Andrews Field during that regular season, was rolling into the sectional on a five-game winning streak. After 32 minutes, it stood stunned as NorthWood escaped the sectional game with a 14-10 upset en route to an eventual sectional title.
As a giant group of seniors let tears and other choice emotions fly under that crisp Nappanee dome, the burn would carry over to a 35-21 whipping this past September at Warrior Field. The loss was bundled into a three-week string of the lowest point of what has become a Jeckyl and Hyde season, sandwiched between stinging blowouts at Concord and Plymouth.
But now having won four straight, including the 27-14 sectional opener at DeKalb which marked head coach Tom Wogomon’s first-ever sectional win at Wawasee, the Warriors are again looking to slay a familiar beast under desperate circumstances.
It’s do or die, in football speak.
“NorthWood is a team we know better than just about anybody,” Wogomon said. “We have played them two times now two years in a row. They always come to play. You talk about mystique, you talk about tradition, you talk about history. That’s NorthWood. But throw all that out, they know how to flat out play tournament football.
“The faces there don’t matter, they bring in another group and prepare just the same. They ramp it up in the tournament, whatever class they are in – 3A, 4A – doesn’t matter. They are just a successful program.”
The history Wogomon cites for the Panthers is certainly rich against its neighbors to the west. NorthWood is home to 17 sectional titles, 10 regional titles, five state championship appearances and a state title in 2005. The Panthers hold a 35-13 edge on Wawasee all-time, and Wogomon is just 2-5 in the seven contests he has coached against the Black Crunch.
NorthWood comes to Wawasee at just 5-5 this season, but stunned the sectional with a 17-13 victory over heavily favored Plymouth (7-3), which had beaten NorthWood the week before to close the regular season. The Panthers don’t cart many bells and whistles, instead run their triple option led by quarterback Will Kirkwood and the running back tandem of Blake Cleveland and Tanner Cleveland.
The Panthers, which managed just 209 net yards against the Pilgrims last week, did roll up over 350 yards against Wawasee – 212 rushing – in the regular season game without turning the ball over. Containing NorthWood’s rushing attack will be of utmost concern for Wogomon’s defense.
“Our defensive ends have got to play assignment football and react,” Wogomon stated. “If the defense does its job, the offense should be able to do its job, too. Our safeties also have to play at a high level, follow their assignments and not let NorthWood get to that second level.”
The Warriors, which did pile up 325 yards on NorthWood but failed to keep the Panthers off the board after gaining moments of momentum, also have a drastically different look. Wawasee did not have running back Derrick Sorensen the first time around after the senior back suffered a concussion against Concord. Sorensen this season has rushed for 608 yards and scored four touchdowns and has rushed for over 1,620 yards in his career.
Wawasee is also starting to gain strides in a revamped offense, which was structured after a 39-point loss at Plymouth. The no huddle, pass happy planning has seen the connection grow between sophomore quarterback Gage Reinhard and classmate Clayton Cook at receiver.
Reinhard has completed 76 of 154 pass attempts this season for 1,126 yards and 10 touchdowns, 624 of those yards and nine of those scores going to Cook. Both Reinhard (228 yards) and Cook (seven catches for 147 yards) recorded career highs against the Panthers in September.
“We were not at full strength when we faced NorthWood the first time,” Wogomon said. “From then to now, we have seven kids in new positions. It’s a totally different looking defense. Our offense, its a shuffled machine. We had to make some changes that was for the betterment of the team, but hard for me to do. I hadn’t played without a tight end since I began coaching. But it has helped. After the Plymouth fiasco, we had to reinvent the offense.”
The 7 p.m. kick-off at Wawasee will parallel the other semi-final in the 4A Sectional 11, which features another pair of Northern Lakes Conference teams in Concord (8-2) hosting Northridge (2-8).
The Minutemen reached the semis by holding off East Noble, 38-35, while Northridge won its first game on the field since 2010 by beating Angola, 18-13. The Raiders were awarded a forfeit win by South Bend Adams the first week of the season and were winless in 2011. The win over Angola was the first sectional win for Northridge since 2009 when it beat Angola.
Concord, which were doubled up 26-13 by NorthWood in the 2011 sectional championship, have won just one sectional title (2010) since its state championship game appearance in 2006.
The winner of the Wawasee-NorthWood game will visit the winner of the Concord-Northridge game on Nov. 2 for the Sectional 11 championship. The sectional champion will take on the champion from Sectional 12, which will be either Columbia City, Fort Wayne Dwenger, New Haven or Norwell.