SOUTH WHITLEY – Almost like ghosts from years past, as the white-clad Whitko student body poured onto the field Friday night, it felt like the echoes were being awakened. It had been 18 years since Whitko could celebrate, and the party in southern Whitley County will rage on after the Wildcats beat Columbia City, 20-14, in the county rivalry that had been in City’s favor the past 12 meetings.
Most, if not all, of the Whitko football roster had not picked up a football or even had been born when Whitko last beat the county seat, dating back to a 20-17 win in 1998. Bryan Sprunger guided the Wildcats that evening, and on Friday, looked on as an assistant coach as his son, Jeff, led the Wildcats to the win.
“We had this circled since last year, and the boys were ready,” Jeff Sprunger said. “We saw it early on. They were just too amped up, not doing their jobs. They all wanted to be heroes, trying to make plays. We told them, go out and read your keys and be ready to rock and roll.”
City had all the makings of putting the rivalry on ice for another season after scoring on its first two possessions. Needing just one play on its first possession, Khale Rider rushed in from 10 yards. City quarterback Brock Snouffer then found Ethan Christen for a 49-yard pass to the Whitko four, and Snouffer punched it in from two yards out. With 3:44 to go in the opening quarter, the Eagles were well on their way.
But in much the same detail as its loss last week to Warsaw, Columbia City looked great in the first half and had no answers in the second half.
Whitko would get on the board in the second quarter, with Hunter Reed taking the ball to the goal line, fumbling, and Conner Sherwin falling on the ball for the score. The two-point try was no good.
Columbia City, keying on Garrett Elder all night, let him get loose one time, and it killed them. A 36-yard run around the right end in the third quarter resulted in a 36-yard touchdown, and Reed tied the game after converting the two-point try.
The turn of fortune showed in Whitko’s favor again on its next possession, when a City punt deep in Whitko’s end bounced off a Whitko blocker’s foot right to Robbie Owsley, who ran it up to the 44. From there, Whitko capped a long drive with a pair of third-down conversions, then Reed blowing through the City defense for a 12-yard score.
City’s first last gasp saw it move into Whitko territory, only to have a snap fly over Snouffer’s head all the way out to midfield. Zach Hewitt then made the play of the game, punching the ball loose on a flea flicker attempt to which Whitko recovered. A final Hail Mary by City with the clock on triple zeroes was tipped away in the end zone by Cole Cmar, ending one of the longest rivalry droughts in the state.
“We came out early on just too overhyped,” Sprunger stated. “I took a time out early and told them all, on the count of three we’re going to all take a deep breath, collect ourselves and come out and play Wildcat football. I’ve been preaching to them that if we play with hustle and heart, it’s going to set us apart. At the end of the night, it did. It got us to where we wanted to be. A heckuva game.”
Reed led Whitko with 97 yards on 26 carries while Elder had 87 on 12 carries. Rider had 63 yards on 14 carries for City, which was held to just 150 total yards in the game. Whitko gained 206 total yards, 190 of those on the ground.
Sherwin led the Wildcat defense with 10 tackles and Hewitt had seven stops.
The Wildcats (2-0) will jump into Three Rivers Conference play next week at Maconaquah (0-2) while Columbia City (0-2) will get into Northeast Eight Conference play against Bellmont (0-2).