SYRACUSE – These two teams just don’t know how to play nice.
In a Northern Lakes Conference where most football teams have some sort of ties to a historical rivalry, Wawasee and NorthWood just have a thing for one another. In an epic 27-21 final in favor of host Wawasee Friday night at Warrior Field, another chapter was written in what has become a very competitive and entertaining series.
Fitting both teams are 5-5 in the past 10 games against each other, Wawasee needed to hold NorthWood on fourth down inside the five on what was the final gasp of a furious NorthWood rally.
Panthers head coach Nate Andrews drew up the right play, a misdirection that had Trent Sellers take the ball and sprint to the corner of the field away from the initial pursuit. As Sellers looked like he was clear for takeoff into the end zone, safety Clayton Cook caught Sellers at the two-yard-line. The placement of the ball was key as NorthWood needed to get to the one for a first down and keep the drive alive.
Cook, who admitted he was beat on the initial movement of the ball before Sellers sprinted to the corner, made a play that could have saved Wawasee’s season.
“There was just a yard between the first down and the end zone, and when I got up, the referee didn’t say anything,” Cook said after bringing Sellers down. “When he said first down, I thought he meant for NorthWood. It was just relief and excitement all at the same time when I saw my teammates celebrating.”
Cook also made what was seen at the time as a dagger in the heart of a previous NorthWood rally. Leading just 20-14, Wawasee’s defense caught a break when Travis Bear slipped on a fourth and three play, ending NorthWood’s potential go-ahead drive at the Wawasee 30. After a delay of game penalty, Cook took the ball and did what every NorthWood coach was yelling during the alignment, sweeping to the right.
But as the Panther pursuit closed in, Cook found a seam in his blocks and went untouched 75 yards for a touchdown.
“Clayton has the elite speed and vision that makes a difference,” said Wawasee head coach Josh Ekovich. “He just made an unbelievable play on what most any other time is a touchdown when they ran that reverse. His speed is what made that play.”
Cook also caught two touchdown passes from Gage Reinhard, the first for 15 yards in the first quarter and the second for 11 yards following a Kurtis Liston interception that put Wawasee in NorthWood territory late in the third quarter. Cook ended up with 116 yards rushing and 66 yards receiving.
NorthWood’s final rally, however, was really the tone the game had all night. After Cook’s long touchdown run, the Panthers recovered a Nic Wilson fumble on a botched play and then converted a fourth and 11 with Bear catching a slant from Trey Bilinski for 30 yards and a stunning score.
NorthWood would recover the onside kick and convert yet another fourth down with 1:30 to go on a Bilinski sneak. The Panthers converted four of six fourth down plays in the second half, only punting once in the final 24 minutes.
“We could have folded, we just came up a couple inches short,” Andrews said. “We battled. We just needed to execute better, and we have been saying that for a long time.”
NorthWood (3-2, 1-2 NLC) piled up exactly 400 yards of offense while Wawasee (3-2, 1-2 NLC) created 428 yards of its own. Bear accounted for 195 all-purpose yards and added scoring runs of four and five yards. Tanner Cleveland piled up 126 yards on 26 carries.
For a Wawasee defense that gave up 99 total points in a pair of embarrassing losses to Northridge and Concord to open the NLC slate, Ekovich couldn’t have been more proud of the stand his kids made.
“I think the defense finally said enough is enough and were tired of being the excuse,” Ekovich said. “They rose up and made some big plays tonight. Credit NorthWood for making the fourth down for a touchdown. Without the defense, I’m giving a completely different interview. I think they put their foot down on fourth down and got a little bit of that swagger back.”