SYRACUSE — Good defensive performances are sometimes overlooked, but the defensive performance from Wawasee on Friday was impossible to ignore. The Warriors pitched a shutout in their season-opening win over South Bend Washington. Despite several threats from the Panthers, Wawasee’s defense barely bent and never broke to hold on for a 13-0 win.
“Those guys are awesome,” Wawasee head coach Josh Ekovich said of his defensive unit. “I’m proud of those boys. It’s different in high school because you have the same guys playing both sides of the ball but, it wasn’t just a group of 11 guys, it was all 44 of our guys tonight.”
Wawasee set a tone defensively on the opening drive of the game. After Washington had driven down into Warrior territory, the Warriors dug their heels in and stuffed the Panthers on a fourth down attempt. The empty possessions only piled up after that for Washington. The six first-half possessions for the Panthers went: turnover on downs, punt, punt, punt, punt and punt. There was also a muffed punt return mixed into that series of duds for Washington.
The Warriors were not in much better shape offensively, but managed to control the clock and tempo. Wawasee finally got its break late in the first quarter when Cole VanLue took a sweep play 31 yards to set his team up with a first-and-goal situation on the two-yard line. Two plays later Tyler Smith followed his blockers in for the season’s first score. Wawasee carried the 7-0 lead into the half.
As good as Wawasee’s defense was in the first half, it never faced much adversity, but that changed in the third and fourth quarters.
Washington recovered a fumble at Wawasee’s 24-yard line on the second half’s opening drive. The Warrior defense once again stuffed the Panthers on a fourth down attempt. The threat was over, but not for long. Washington’s Josh Wilson blocked a Wawasee punt on the ensuing drive to set his team up once again inside Warrior territory. Wilson also recovered the fumble earlier in the quarter.
The Panthers looked as if they were finally going to score Wawasee’s defense shut the door on its opponent once more on fourth down, this time by forcing an incomplete pass. Two promising possessions for Washington, two turnovers on downs. The Panthers had similar chances late in the third and fourth quarters but were denied by the Warriors as they forced incomplete passes in the end zone on both occasions.
“The kids handled adversity extremely well tonight,” Ekovich remarked. “I never thought our defense would come out the way it did tonight. I was confident in our scheme, don’t get me wrong, but our defense just did great tonight. That’s a testament to our defensive coaching staff.”
What was most impressive about the defense’s performance was that it was the unit that had the most turnover from 2015. It was a bunch of new faces in new places and everyone seemed to shine at some point. The Warriors had six players with four tackles or more and 12 players with multiple tackles. Michael Katzer and Dalton Pearish led the team with five tackles each. Linebacker Will Geer made his presence known with four passes defended while Alex Castro was constantly in on plays and made two key stops in the game.
Paul Mendoza was finally able to get a shot at varsity football after sitting out with an injury last season. He had two tackles for loss and also rushed for 44 yards.
Wawasee rushed for 261 yards as a team, and passed for five. Smith led Wawasee with 81 yards on the ground. Noah Wadkins had the game’s biggest play as he broke a 54-yard run off in the fourth quarter to give Wawasee a 13-0 lead.
Donya Harris led Washington with 44 yards on the ground. Wilson led the Panthers with 92 receiving yards. Tyrese Belcher had 99 passing yards on 29 attempts.
Wawasee (1-0) has now won six consecutive season openers. The Warriors host West Noble next Friday while Washington (0-1) will travel to play Jimtown.