LOWELL — Black Friday will have a whole new meaning next weekend in downtown Indianapolis. While many will be hustling and bustling throughout the stores in the Circle City, the NorthWood football team will be in pursuit of a state title. Black Crunch clinched a trip to state following a thrilling, and chilling, 21-14 victory over Lowell in the IHSAA Class 4-A North Semi-state.
“They’ve got a never say die attitude,” said NorthWood head coach Nate Andrews of his state-bound team. “I just can’t ever say enough about these kids. They’re unbelievable.”
Unbelievable was certainly one way to describe much of Friday’s contest between the Panthers and Red Devils at “The Inferno.” Chilling winds set the tone for a classic smashmouth football game that provided plenty of ups and downs for both sides.
NorthWood scored first on a heads-up play from one of its captain. On a fourth-and-one play Lowell forced NorthWood’s Brayton Yoder to fumble, but Drew Minnich was there for the Panthers to pick up the loose ball and go 30 yards for the score. NorthWood led 7-0 from the 5:50 mark of the first into the final two minutes of the half.
“I just thought, ‘I need to get that,'” said Minnich with a laugh when asked about his clutch recovery. “There was nobody there so I was able to just sprint straight for the end zone and get the touchdown.”
With 1:31 left in the opening half Lowell finally made a momentum-swinging play of its own.
A Trey Bilinski punt was deflected and recovered by Lowell’s Logan O’Hanlon. The junior defensive back took the loose ball to the end zone to make things 7-7 before the break.
Lowell, a team known for milking the clock with its dominant running game, did just that to start the second half. The Red Devils took nearly four minutes off the clock and capped its opening drive of the third quarter with a one-yard touchdown from Jordan Jusevitch. Lowell held the lead and the momentum up 14-7.
Bilinski led the Panthers back down on the ensuing drive and finished it off with a nine-yard scoring pass to DeAndre Smart. A penalty on NorthWood sideline backed the extra-point try up five yards and that was enough to lead to a missed attempt. With 4:55 left in the third, Lowell was clinging to a 14-13 lead.
The score stayed that way for what seemed like an eternity. The painful doubts started to creep into the minds of even the team’s strongest players.
“In the back of my mind, I was a little worried,” admitted Minnich. “But coach always preaches to us about never being out of a game. I was thinking about it being the end. I even hung my head a little at one point after a bad play. Coach set me right after that. He let us know we were still in it.”
Bilinski and the Panthers offense struggled for much of the game but were big when they needed to be down the stretch. The senior signal caller converted huge passes to Landen Gessinger and Bronson Yoder on the final drive, including fourth-and-eight play to Yoder that set up first-and-goal on the one. Bilinski punched it in a play later then added a two-point conversion to put his team up 21-14. Lowell’s potential game-tying drive was cut short when Bronson Yoder picked off Ethan Igras with just 39 seconds left to play.
“It’s kind of an indescribable feeling,” Bilinski said of the go-ahead scoring drive. “We worked hard all game, and you have to give credit to Lowell’s defense. That’s definitely the best defense we played all season. They had us scratching our heads at times trying to figure out what we needed to do. When the time came, we were able to execute and pulled it off.”
Bilinski may be the most recognizable player on the team, but he knows how big his receivers are for the team’s success.
“Lando (Gessinger) had been running routes all night and we just weren’t getting the ball to him,” Bilinski explained. “He told me to get him the ball, he said he’d make the play. That next play he makes a heckuva catch.
“Bronson, you know how that kid is. He’s an absolutely amazing player. I can’t say enough about him. He ran that route perfect and made that huge catch for us. Guys stepped up tonight when we needed them most.”
After the game, NorthWood’s large contingent of fans stormed the field and altered its chant from the past few weeks. No longer was Nate Andrews serenaded with.”Nate take us to state!” The cheerleaders had tweaked it to a, now, much more fitting, “Nate, we’re going to state!”
The No. 2 ranked Panthers move to 14-0 and will face No. 1 Roncalli (14-0) Friday afternoon for the IHSAA Class 4-A State Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium. Kick is set for 3:30 p.m. Roncalli beat No. 7 East Central on a last-second field goal, 24-21, to advance to its 12th overall state finals appearance and first since 2005. This will be NorthWood’s sixth overall state championship appearance. The last for Black Crunch also coming in 2005.
The Rebels and Panthers have met just once before. That meeting came in the 1993 Class 3-A title game, a 14-12 decision in favor of Roncalli.