SYRACUSE — After his team’s dominant, 57-13 victory over host Wawasee, NorthWood head coach Nate Andrews briefly lost track of the Panthers’ record during his post-game pep talk. This No. 2-ranked NorthWood squad isn’t so much concerned about wins and losses, although the end result of that mentality is an unblemished 5-0 start as of Friday’s Northern Lakes Conference win in Syracuse.
“It’s funny. I was about to tell the kids I think we’re undefeated, I think we’re 5-0, but I wasn’t sure,” said Andrews. “But then this team doesn’t care about that. They don’t talk about that. They don’t worry about it. It’s just ‘What’s next, Coach?’ And ‘How do we handle our business?’”
Handle their business the Panthers certainly did.
After a relatively slow start, Wood’s dynamic offense poured on three touchdowns and a field goal in the second quarter to get some separation at 30-7 at halftime, then resumed rolling with four more scores in the second half en route to the win. The visitors ground up a whopping 517 run yards at Wawasee, had three rushers pass the century mark and nearly got a fourth late in the game. Senior do-it-all quarterback Bronson Yoder tallied 170 yards and two scores in 22 rushes, junior running back Jaden Miller added 139 yards and two TDs in just five carries, and sophomore Kyle Sellers needed only five touches to reach 100 yards and a score himself. Junior back Veshon Malone sprinkled in 85 rushing yards and two scores in 10 carries of his own in a deep and explosive ground and pound by the Panthers (5-0, 3-0 NLC).
“The plan was to kind of stretch it and get to the perimeter. The game plan all week was to try to get to the edge, and then once we thinned them out, spread them out a little bit, to go right at them. That’s exactly what happened,” explained Andrews.
By contrast, Wawasee (0-5, 0-3 NLC) struggled to move the ball on the ground, finishing the night with just 37 net rushing yards. Junior quarterback Evan Eshbach had some success through the air, hitting 17 of 28 targets with one interception versus one TD completion — a 31-yard connection with Steven Hauntz over the middle at the 4:57 mark of the fourth quarter — but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep pace with the Panthers.
“It’s not really that complicated, and I know from week to week everybody asks me and I kind of say the same old thing and it’s really not a cliche. You’ve got to run the ball, you’ve got to stop the run, offensively you’ve got to sustain drives, and defensively you’ve got to get off the field on third downs,” said Wawasee head coach Mike Eshbach. “The game is not complicated in that regard when you really kind of look at it. Just unfortunately right now we’re just missing a piece here, missing a piece there.”
Alongside his eye-popping rushing numbers, Yoder finished with 2-for-3 passing for 38 yards and hauled in a pair of catches himself for 38 yards and a touchdown. The competitors were locked in a scoreless stalemate through most of the first quarter before sophomore QB hit Yoder for a 24-yard TD strike at the 2:26 stop of the clock. Newcomer rotated in and out of the quarterback position throughout the night as the Panthers utilized Yoder’s athleticism at several positions, and Newcomer finished the night 4 for 8 with 80 passing yards.
“We’ve hoped to work in Nate a little bit more and a little bit more as the season went on, kind of see what happens. That way Bronson can do a lot of different things,” Andrews explained. “It gives us another weapon out there.”
Miller took it to the house from 84 yards out to stretch Wood’s advantage to 14-0 at the 11:12 mark of the second stanza, but Wawasee answered back with a big play of its own on the ensuing kickoff, a 98-yard touchdown ramble by Dylan Hepler-Fink that brought the Warriors to within a score at the 10:58 mark of the frame. Yoder broke loose for an 80-yard TD trek at the 10:44 stop of the clock, however, as the two teams scored a trio of touchdowns in just 28 seconds of game clock at the front end of the frame. Jason Sanchez added a 23-yard field goal with 8:26 remaining until halftime, and Miller rushed for his second TD of the night from 26 yards out with 4:34 on the clock to give the Panthers a cushion of more than three scores at the intermission.
“We felt like we were tripping over ourselves and stumbling over each other in some ways, missing some blocking,” said Andrews of his team’s relatively slow start at Wawasee. “But the leadership of the team held us together and never panicked, and we were able to pull away.”
“We said we want to win the first quarter. You know what, to me a win is 7-nothing either way. That’s solid, and some changes can be made,” said Eshbach. “I just feel like in the second quarter we just weren’t able to run the ball, and that’s our demise. It’s so easy to say ‘Oh, it’s just the O line,’ but it’s not. Do I wish there were times that we would be more physical? Yeah, absolutely I do, but there are times when everybody wants to blame the O line, and it’s the running back not being patient, not finding the bubble or perimeter guys not blocking. I felt like there were points when things did go well and then there were penalties, and sometimes those penalties can be drive-killers. It’s just frustrating.”
Hauntz led the Warriors’ receiving corps with 39 yards and a touchdown in two catches, while Hepler-Fink reeled in seven catches for 32 yards, and Gabe Moore and LaShaun Morris hauled in two catches apiece for 24 and 20 receiving yards, respectively. Keyan Peete led Wawasee’s rushers but finished with only 17 yards on seven carries. Peete also led the Warriors’ dense with nine tackles alongside Jesse Landeros, while Levi Brown finished with eight, and Isaiah Tipping tallied seven.
Kyler Hauptli and Eddie Hildebrant finished with seven tackles each, and Brock Lehman had six for NorthWood. The Panthers return home to take on Northridge (3-2, 2-1 NLC) next Friday.
“I don’t know how they did tonight, but I know they’re one of the best teams in the league so I’m looking forward to that great challenge,” Andrews said.
Wawasee continues to search for its first win of the season when the Warriors hit the road for Plymouth (3-2, 2-1 NLC) next week.
“It’s going to happen. I wish the good Lord would tell me when it’s going to be just like everybody else,” Eshbach said.
“Our guys come to practice every single day and work their tails off. They’re trying to get better. At the end of the day, these guys are 16-, 17-year-old kids. They’re not trying to make mistakes, and they’re trying to feel their way. I just think sometimes from a patience level, we’re not where we want to be. We’re not even close, but these kids are working hard and they’re not quitting on themselves, on their teammates, on their coaches. I can’t promise anything but I know that our kids are going to play hard, and we’re going to do everything we can to fix it and build a culture.”