WARSAW – For over three years, there has been nothing fancy about the Warsaw Tigers’ football helmets. Just a blank, black canvas only disturbed by scuffs and scratches. Come Monday afternoon, it’s time for a makeover.
The senior class at Warsaw stood tall, holding the ‘W’ Trophy high in the air Friday night after the Tigers held off Wawasee, 14-13, allowing the ‘W’ stickers to be put back on the helmets after being beaten by the Warriors in each of the past three seasons. The ballgame was just as nip and tuck as the score might have indicated, just as the series has been in recent vintage.
Memories of the 2012 game were very fresh on both sidelines, where a fourth down play by Warsaw was stuffed on the goal line, giving Wawasee a 14-13 win and leaving a very bitter taste in the Tigers’ mouths. A repeat of last year almost came to fruition Friday night, as the same score flashed on the scoreboard, but this time with Wawasee trailing and running out of time.
The score, which sat idle since Wawasee quarterback Gage Reinhard snuck in a one-yard rush at the 6:41 mark of the third quarter, was only separating the two teams on the missed extra point following Reinhard’s touchdown. With Warsaw giving up the ball with 51 seconds left in the game after a punt, Wawasee needed a miracle. Getting one first down, Wawasee approached midfield but the clock continued to tick down.
As Warsaw’s defense continued to bend, Wawasee could not come up with the back breaker. On fourth down, Reinhard looked for his favorite target, Clayton Cook, but the 6’3″ receiver could not haul in a Hail Mary between the quadruple coverage from Warsaw as the ball harmlessly fell to the drenched turf. The celebration that ensued from 81 black-clad Tigers, but specifically 23 seniors, made Phil Jensen a mighty proud head coach.
“Life is not about trophies, I mean they are great, and that trophy means a lot to a lot of people and it means a lot to us,” stated a very emotional Jensen. “But it’s who they are and what they have done that got us the trophy back. The kids, they are men of integrity and men of character. They never quit believing and played four hard quarters against a really, really good football team. Those kids grew up together, they played little league baseball together. What a game by both teams. I am just happy for our kids.”
One of the seniors that did a bulk of the damage for Warsaw was Tristan McClone. To no surprise to anyone from Wawasee that scouted the running back, or to any of the brethren at Warsaw, McClone would be the difference maker one way or another. And for Warsaw’s sake, No. 20 did the job. McClone scored both of Warsaw’s touchdowns, one from five yards out in the first quarter and the other a 40-yard scamper through a glaring hole in the Wawasee secondary in the second quarter.
But it was the tough yards McClone churned out among the 36 carries and 175 yards that made the most impact in the game. A third and eight play had McClone pick up nine to keep a drive alive. The first scoring drive had McClone almost exclusively carry the ball down the field. The night mirrored that of what Adrian Peterson means to the Minnesota Vikings offense. Teams know Peterson is getting the ball, but stopping him is nearly impossible.
“How many times did he carry the ball, 50?” asked an exasperated Wawasee head coach Josh Ekovich on McClone’s workload for the evening. “He’s a good back and he’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders. He has the whole team on his shoulders. I credit (McClone) to be able to handle the pressure and be able to come up with third and five. I can’t tell you how many times they had third and long and we didn’t come off the field.
“The defense played bold in the second half, shut them out in the second half. We just didn’t play offense in the second half, and I’ll put that on my shoulders.”
While McClone was the X on the game controller for Warsaw, the Tigers were overly concerned with Cook on the other side of the equation. After Cook torched Plymouth for over 220 yards and four touchdowns last Friday, Jensen and company were unashamed to sell out in double and triple coverages to keep Cook from catching the ball.
Just how good Cook has become for Wawasee was on display on a 19-yard touchdown play with just four seconds left in the first half. As Cook caught a ball between two defenders four yards from the pylon, a stutter-step and lunge toward the orange marker had Cook pass the ball over the corner of the end zone as his 6’3″ frame was falling out of bounds draped in Warsaw defenders. The play was ruled a touchdown by the far side official, and kept Wawasee in the game, trailing 14-7 heading into halftime.
Cook ended up with just three receptions for 52 yards and the one score. But with Warsaw defenders hounding him all night, Ekovich was forced to come up with alternatives that didn’t always work.
“They had him triple teamed the whole night,” Ekovich stated. “Usually that opens up other receivers and they did a good job of man coverage on the other side. Looking back on it, we should have run the ball a little more. But we can’t take it back, we have to live with those decisions and learn from it.”
Warsaw finished the night with 254 yards of total offense, only completing three of eight passes from Austin Head for 36 yards. Jason Taylor added 30 yards on the ground on 13 carries. Warsaw’s defense, which gave up 276 yards to offense – highlighted by 231 all-purpose yards from Reinhard – made the plays in the second half when it mattered. And to get those ‘W’ stickers back on the helmet and the trophy back in the county seat, Jensen will take it.
“Basically going into the season, you want to do three things,” started Jensen, “You want to win the ‘W’ trophy. You want to win the conference championship. You want to win the sectional. This is a championship game within the season for these two teams. And more importantly for us, it keeps us alive in the hunt for the conference championship. Two losses in this conference isn’t going to win a championship, so they did what they have to do to keep ourselves alive.”
Warsaw has now won the ‘W’ trophy 17 times since it was introduced in 1986 by the Ralph Reiff family and have it in hand for the first time since 2010.
The game also kept Warsaw alive in the Northern Lakes Conference race. The Tigers, now 5-2 on the season and 4-1 in the conference, are in a flat-footed tie with Northridge and Concord, both 4-1 in the NLC. Northridge shut out Goshen, 20-0, but shockwaves and cheers rang through the respective communities when the score came in that Plymouth, which were embarrassed at Wawasee a week ago, upset Concord 42-39 at The Rock Pile.
The Tigers’ conference destiny is now in its own hands with a home date with NorthWood next week and a trip to Dunlap in two weeks. Concord (5-2) will host Northridge (6-1) next week in a monster NLC matchup.
Wawasee (3-4, 2-3 NLC) will look to regroup next Friday when it hosts Elkhart Memorial (2-5, 1-4 NLC) as its homecoming game before closing up the regular season at Goshen, which is winless on the season.
The night also celebrated fundraising efforts from both schools as part of the Pink Out taking place at Fisher Field. Both schools combined to raise over $7,000 during the week, with several contests and raffles among the activities held both Friday and throughout the week. The monies raised will go directly to the Kosciusko County Cancer Fund, which helps those stricken with cancer and their families both financially and in support.