DUNLAP – Wawasee’s Tyler Smith put his team on his shoulders Friday night.
Unfortunately, Concord’s Cedric Mitchell’s legs got in the way of those sturdy shoulders and Smith’s huge heart.
Smith’s truly special performance was spoiled by Mitchell’s scintillating special teams play as the host Minutemen outscored Wawasee 49-40 in a Northern Lakes Conference classic at Jake Field.
Senior quarterback Smith rushed for over 300 yards as Wawasee piled up over 600 yards of total offense. Smith, whose determined play was simply sensational, ran for four touchdowns and threw for another score in the heartbreaking loss.
It just simply was not enough for what could have been an epic win for the Warriors.
Mitchell, the speedy senior bound for Bowling Green next year, was electric. The do-it-all Mitchell returned two kicks for touchdowns, including one 75 yards with 4:29 to play to seal the win. He also hauled in a 48-yard touchdown toss in the victory. Mitchell, who had over 200 yards in kick returns, now has 11 touchdowns in four games, including four on kick returns.
Concord, which has not lost to the Warriors since a playoff game in 2004, improves to 3-1 overall and goes to 2-1 in league play. Wawasee falls to 3-1 and 1-1.
It simply came down to letting Mitchell touch the ball and turnovers. The Warriors committed four turnovers in the gut-wrenching loss, including three interceptions thrown by Smith, while Concord had none. The Minutemen have now had no turnovers through the first four games, while their opponents have 12 miscues.
The second half of the back-and-forth offensive slugfest was played in a downpour. The nearly three-hour game ended just before thunderstorms hit.
“I hate moral victories, but Concord is a good program with great athletes and we went toe-to-toe with them,” said Wawasee coach Josh Ekovich. “Hopefully this is something that we can use to continue to grow and develop.
“What killed us was that he (Mitchell) went off on special teams and we turned the ball over four times. If not for those four turnovers, it’s a different game.
“I don’t care how many yards of offense we had. The turnovers just killed us tonight. Tyler just made plays. We told him this is your team and put it on your back and he did that tonight. Our offensive line also stepped up and played really well for us.”
Ekovich stepped up and took the blame for Mitchell’s kick returns, which also included a huge one in the third quarter to set up another Concord touchdown.
“Those calls are my fault and on me,” said Ekovich. “I have to live with us kicking the ball to him. Hindsight is always 20-20. He’s just a heck of a player. One of the most dynamic that I’ve seen.”
The Warriors pulled within 42-40 with 4:40 left when Cole VanLue scampered in from eight yards out. Smith was stuffed on a two-point run attempt.
Mitchell then took the kickoff, found a seam and went 75 yards for the backbreaker. Wawasee drove down deep into Concord territory before Jocco Iavagnilio sealed the win with an interception at the Minutemen nine-yard line with 1:57 to play.
Wawasee, which never led, scored on a 99-yard drive and a pair of 73-yard marches in the second half. The gutty Smith ran for a pair of touchdowns in the second half.
Concord led 7-0 just 1:28 into the contest after Mitchell took a punt return 70 yards to the house. The Warriors tied it late in the opening period at 7-7 on a gorgeous 30-yard run by Smith. The Minutemen then scored the next 12 points, including two on a safety as a high snap sailed out of the end zone on a Wawasee punt attempt, to take a 19-7 lead.
The Warriors fought tooth and nail the entire 48 minutes. Wawasee cut the Concord lead to 19-14 on a one-yard lunge by Smith with 4:06 left before halftime. Mitchell then hauled in a 48-yard scoring strike with 1:32 to play to make it 26-14. Wawasee answered as Smith hit Jacob Hand on a 26-yard touchdown toss, in which Hand made an amazing driving catch, with just 12.3 seconds left to make it 26-21 at halftime.
It just simply came down to too much Mitchell in the end.
“I thought that we were more physical than they were,” noted Ekovich. “We did everything we could. It’s just those four turnovers killed us.”
Concord, which had beaten Wawasee 27-7 last season, bounced back from a 50-32 pasting at NorthWood a week ago. The Warrior defense, which had allowed just 27 points in its first three games, gave up 49 to a Minutemen team which averaged 43 per game entering play Friday night.
Smith finished the night with 40 carries for 311 yards. He also threw for 159 yards as the Warriors piled up 611 yards of total offense, including an incredible 452 on the ground. Smith’s 28 pass attempts were one more than the Warriors had attempted in the first three games of the season combined.
Noah Wadkins had nine carries for 67 yards for Wawasee, while Paul Mendoza led the Warriors in receiving with four catches for 79 yards.
Junior quarterback Jack Lietzan ran for two touchdowns and three for another score for Concord. Junior Dominick DeBroka had 16 rushes for 128 yards and outstanding junior kicker Josh Gorball hit on field goals of 35 and 41 yards for the Minutemen.
Wawasee hosts undefeated and Class 4-A No. 3 NorthWood (4-0, 2-0) and Concord hosts Goshen (3-1, 1-1) in NLC play next Friday night. NorthWood beat Goshen 35-12 Friday night.