WARSAW — Wawasee looked like a team on a mission at the start of its Homecoming game with Warsaw Friday night.
The Warriors marched 60 yards downfield on the opening possession, and Brayden Johnson nailed a 40-yard field goal to give the home team an initial advantage and all the momentum in the world. Even after the Tigers answered with a pair of first-quarter touchdowns to take a 14-3 lead, Wawasee seemed relatively unfazed and capped off an 80-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter to cut that deficit back to three. But Warsaw answered with a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive of its own, picked off an Evan Eshbach pass deep inside its own territory with just 58 seconds remaining in the half and drove the ball 65 yards downfield in just four plays to punch in another score and grab a 28-10 halftime lead.
The margin only snowballed from there, and the Tigers retained possession of the coveted “W” trophy with a 49-16 Homecoming spoiler at Warrior Field.
“The communities are really close, and it’s a game that really means something to both communities so it’s great to be taking that thing back home,” said Warsaw coach Bart Curtis of the traveling trophy.
“They came out and came out to play and ran their jet series on us and got the edge on us a few times. Completed some nice passes. They’ve got some weapons without a doubt, so I feel good that we were able to respond to all that and answer offensively. That’s a good win for us.”
The Warriors were able to establish their run game early, which helped open up the passing game, too.
But already trailing by more than two touchdowns at the start of the second half, the hole got even deeper on the opening possession of the third period when Warsaw marched 80 yards in just nine plays and converted a fourth down opportunity for another TD at the 7:43 stop of the clock, pushing the Tigers’ cushion to 35-10. Now needing to make up a lot of ground in a hurry, Wawasee was forced to air it out, and that predictability helped swell the margin out to that remote, 49-16 final.
“We marched down the field, got a field goal. Hey, I’m OK with that. You want touchdowns, but I felt like we established a groove and kids realized ‘Hey, we can do this,” said Wawasee coach Mike Eshbach. ‘And really that probably went into the second quarter. And then at that point you become a little predictable.”
“I just felt like maybe that last five minutes or so of the second quarter absolutely just killed us,” he continued. “They get three touchdowns right there within six minutes or so of the second quarter. So then it just blows everything up, and now you’re predictable. We can run the ball and all that, but that’s not going to give you a chance to win.”
Evan Eshbach finished the night 16-for-28 passing for 231 passing yards and both of his team’s touchdowns — the first a 7-yarder to Josh Slabaugh at the 7:56 stop of the second and the last a 28-yard completion to Dylan Hepler with no time left on the game clock. But he also threw a pair of interceptions, and Warsaw punished both with touchdowns. That first pick by sophomore Caden Silveus helped swing the score to an 18-point halftime advantage and felt like the largest momentum shift of the night. Earlier in the evening, Silveus also recovered a Wawasee fumble on a kickoff return at the Warriors 29, and the Tigers capitalized with their second touchdown just four plays later to stake the visitors to a 14-3 lead at the 1:49 mark of the first.
And while Wawasee gave up a trio of turnovers, the Tigers never surrendered a single one in Syracuse.
“That was huge because that was going to make it 21-17 if they got it in, and then we end up picking it with a minute and a half to go in the half and were able to get one more in, which was nice. A big difference between 21-17 and 28-10,” explained Curtis of the Silveus interception. “I thought that was key, and then I thought getting the fumble recovery on the kick return by Caden Silveus was key, too.
“Knock on wood, we didn’t turn the ball over three games in a row. Because we had been booting it around like it had no value the first month of the season, and we have since gotten a little more ball security conscious.”
Alongside those turnovers, the Tigers also used their run game to more than double Wawasee’s time of possession.
Warsaw’s backfield rushed for 395 yards compared to only 23 net rushing yards by the Warriors while converting three of four fourth down attempts, led by Juan Jaramillo’s 100 yards in eight carries and Kane Dawson’s 89 yards and a score in 16 rushes. Bryce Garner ran the ball for 51 yards and a touchdown of his own, and quarterback Josh West finished the night with 50 yards and three scores on the ground. All told, Warsaw controlled the ball for nearly 32 minutes of clock, seriously limiting Wawasee’s chances on the offensive side of the ball.
“I think at the end of the first quarter, middle of that second quarter, if we’d have just forced the punt one time, we could’ve gained some momentum there. I felt like at halftime that game very easily could’ve been 17-17,” said Mike Eshbach. “And then they come out and get a couple and just grind it, and you never get the stinking ball back.”
Hepler finished the night with 82 receiving yards, while LaShaun Morris recorded 40, Slabaugh tallied 38, and Keyan Peete hauled in a 27-yard reception. Peete also led Wawasee’s run game early with 32 yards in 11 carries. The Warriors slipped to 0-7 and 0-5 in the Northern Lakes Conference alongside Goshen. They’ll play on the road at Elkhart Memorial (1-6, 1-4 NLC) next Friday.
“You walk in that locker room, and there’s kids in tears. It’s not a lack of want-to. And it’s hard, but we just can’t make mistakes,” said Mike Eshbach. “We took a touchdown off the board, and it was just four or five other things here or there — just not lining up right defensively, not being able to stop things, let a guy through. It just seems like we’ve got some young guys playing in some key spots, and it’s tough.”
Warsaw improves to 6-1 overall with its fourth straight win in the series and fourth straight win since an overtime loss at Plymouth back on Aug. 31. They also moved to 4-1 in the NLC, tied with Plymouth behind unbeaten NorthWood (7-0, 5-0 NLC). They’ll get a shot at the Class 4A, second-ranked Black Crunch in Nappanee next week.
“We don’t look too much at the big picture,” said Curtis when asked about the Tigers’ NLC prospects. “We’ve got to come in tomorrow, correct the mistakes and get ready to play a game next week. Our goal is to get better every week, and I think we’ve done that in most facets. Next week is a new week, a new test, and we’ll see what happens.”