INDIANAPOLIS — It seemed to be the perfect set up. Black Crunch was playing for a state title on Black Friday. The story was ready to write itself. But the perfect ending could not be written for No. 2 NorthWood as Roncalli’s Derek O’Connor made the final chapter all about himself and the top-ranked Rebels. O’Connor tallied 288 all-purpose yards to help lift Roncalli to the 2016 IHSAA Class 4-A State Championship over NorthWood, 34-22, Friday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After the two heavyweights played to a scoreless tie in the first quarter, O’Connor got his team on the board in the second with a two-yard run. The senior would strike again later in the quarter with a one-yard run, putting his team up 14-0 with 3:39 to play in the half after a costly and controversial defensive pass interference call set the Rebels up inside NorthWood’s 15. O’Connor was doing his best to crush the spirit of the Panthers, but NorthWood did not get this far to just roll over.
NorthWood finally put together a scoring drive after an offensively lethargic first half. Trey Bilinski put the Panthers on the board with a two-yard run of his own with just over a minute to spare in the second quarter. A failed two-point try left NorthWood trailing 14-6 at the break.
Luke Smock started a big third quarter off with a 34-yard run for the Rebels. NorthWood responded right away on a 36-yard rumble from Brayton Yoder. The Panthers were successful on their two-point try, a reverse toss to Landen Gessinger, to make the score 21-14.
The big-scoring quarter continued for both teams as O’Connor connected with Jacob Luedeman for a 70-yard score on the ensuing drive. NorthWood gave the ball back to Roncalli but a fumble recovery by Andrew Miller, forced by Jake Stump and Bronson Yoder, set up a 31-yard run from Brayton Yoder. Bilinski found DeAndre Smart for two and the Panthers found themselves down 28-22 with 1:48 left in the third.
The Panthers were unable to establish their run game despite Yoder’s two long scoring runs. That led to a tough day offensively from Bilinski and company. Roncalli ruled the trenches and the turf Friday afternoon which forced the Panthers into “three yards and a cloud of dust” type of production, only it was three yards and a cloud of rubber pellets at Lucas Oil.
Like a broken record that Panther faithful never want to hear again, O’Connor once again kept NorthWood from gaining too much momentum. He would score on a 22-yard run near the eight-minute mark of the fourth to put his team up 34-22. The Rebels defense did its part and keeping the Panthers out of the end zone, leading to Roncalli clinching its ninth state title.
O’Connor rushed for a game-high 154 yards and three scores while throwing for another touchdown and 159 more yards. Kenny Gillum, the team’s star running back was kept in check by NorthWood as he rushed for just 76 yards.
O’Connor and the Rebels totaled 417 yards of offense while NorthWood was held to 260. Brayton Yoder led the Panthers with 77 yards on the ground. Bilinski was 11-24 for 139 yards and two picks. Roncalli won the turnover battle, 3-1, as well as the points off of turnovers category, 13-8. But, most impressive was Roncalli’s advantage in time of possession, 31:42-16:18.
The Rebels came in No. 1 and stayed true to that ranking throughout.
“It’s a big deal and I’m just so happy for our kids,” said Roncalli head coach Bruce Scifres. “To get back here, after it had been a little while, it’s special. I couldn’t be more proud of our kids.”
“To win a state championship is awesome, to do it with a 15-0 record is even better. There was no doubt in my mind that we were the best team in the state and today we proved that.”
NorthWood was left searching for answers. Even finishing the season at 14-1 was not enough to erase the sting of that one loss.
“It’s tough because we felt like the kids have handled every stage so well this season and we didn’t handle this one our best. At least, it didn’t feel like we played our best,” said NorthWood head coach Nate Andrews. “Obviously Roncalli is a very good team. We got dinged up early and it made us play some kids both ways and they got tired. It’s unfortunate they got exposed out here. It’s difficult because they’ve been tremendous all year.
“They played hard, they played hard. Just came up short.”
The appearance in the state championship was the sixth all-time for the Panthers and first since winning the title in 2005. For Roncalli, Friday’s win marked the program’s ninth state title, first since 2004 and its first championship appearance since 2005. In its nine championships, Roncalli has defeated a Northern Lakes Conference team four times Wawasee twice (1985, 2004) and NorthWood twice (1993, 2016).
NorthWood’s Drew Minnich was named the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award winner. The story on that achievement can be found here.