WARSAW — The long wait is finally over.
Warsaw’s Tigers made history Friday night, handing visiting Penn a convincing, 35-18 defeat and hoisting sectional championship hardware for the first time in program history. Long after the game had ended, team members, students and fans continued to mill around the frozen grounds at Fisher Field soaking up the historic moment.
“It feels amazing. It’s like nothing else. It’s just life-changing,” said junior halfback Juan Jaramillo. “This is great for the community. I’m new to the community, and witnessing this is really great. It’s amazing.”
“Oh, man. This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in sports. I’ve never felt this way,” echoed senior quarterback Wyatt Amiss. “I just feel speechless right now. This whole community, they painted the town orange and black just for us, and we came out and performed for them. This is for everybody in our community and the people that were here before. It’s just so surreal.”
The Tigers led 14-6 at halftime, but the Kingsmen mounted a ferocious comeback in the third quarter.
Penn capitalized on a Brenden Toombs recovery of a Jaramillo fumble at the Warsaw 38, scoring in five plays when quarterback Nicholas Favilla scrambled out of the pocket and tossed a short pass to Alec Hardrict just outside the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown connection at the 8:14 mark. That score cut Warsaw’s lead to a tenuous 14-12 advantage when Tigers junior linebacker Zach DeFord knocked down the ensuing two-point conversion pass.
The Kingsmen got another short field when Warsaw went three and out on its next possession, and Harrison Mevis’ punt was partially blocked to give Penn back the ball at the Tiger 29. Favilla found Hardrict once again — this time all by himself in the end zone — and although Thomas Castline’s point-after kick sailed wide left, the visitors had still taken the lead, 18-14, with 6:12 remaining in the period.
But Warsaw answered right back when Jaramillo broke free for a 77-yard touchdown ramble up the middle on the very next play from scrimmage, and Mevis’ PAT kick put Warsaw back out front, 21-18, at the 5:55 stop of the clock.
“Our line is amazing. The whole year they’ve been doing great. They’ve been a big part of our offense. Just seeing a hole open, I just took it,” recalled Jaramillo of the big score. “We had to come back. We had some fumbles and had to recover from that, but, yeah, we did it.”
Warsaw coach Bart Curtis thought the memory of that earlier fumble that cost the Tigers a touchdown may have helped give Jaramillo a boost on the way to his marathon touchdown run.
“Of course we were hitting the perimeter a little bit, and one of our plays is where he can get the ball up inside. He found a crease and put the jets on, and away he goes,” explained Curtis. “I know he was a little ticked off about the fumble still — sometimes that’s good. Not the fumble, but for him to play all fired up, he plays a little better.”
“Me and Juan are great buddies. We have a clique together, and just to see him run 70 yards or whatever that was, chasing him down from behind, that was a flip of the tone of the game,” said Amiss. “They had the momentum going into that possession, and we didn’t hold onto the ball well but he’s a big playmaker.”
After Jaramillo’s momentum-changer, the Tigers defensive unit held Penn to three and out on its next possession, and Warsaw mounted another touchdown drive from its own 47. It took the home team just seven plays to widen the gap, Amiss pitching the ball to senior running back Blake Marsh on the right side and Marsh sliding untouched into the end zone from five yards out to give his team some breathing room at 28-18 with 14.3 seconds left in the frame.
A Luke Anderson interception halted Penn at the Warsaw 34 on the Kingsemen’s next drive, but an Amiss fumble and Zackary Messer recovery gave Penn the ball right back at its own 22 with 4:50 left to play. But when Favilla hit tight end Casey Shultz on the left side, Shultz fumbled the ball turning downfield, and Anderson came up big with another takeaway recovering the ball at the Kingsmen 47. Two plays later, Marsh broke free for a 42-yard run, and Mevis completed his fifth successful point-after kick of the night to push the score out to its final margin with 2:40 left to play.
With Penn’s hopes already dwindling, a scrambling Favilla coughed up a fumble at the Tiger 36, and Mario Cortes’ recovery with 1:42 remaining in the game touched off a celebration on the Warsaw sideline.
“We just kept playing. When we got behind in the third quarter, and I could feel it slipping away, there was that feeling like ‘OK, how are we going to respond?’ And we just kept playing. Our kids just said hey, next play,” said Curtis.
“We could’ve folded. We didn’t. I’m just really excited for our kids and our community. It’s a great night for our community and our kids. It’s just an exciting, exciting night.”
Warsaw set the tone early, halting Penn at its own 37 on the game’s opening possession, then marching 79 yards in 19 plays and bleeding more than nine minutes off the clock on the way to a 9-yard Marsh touchdown run at the 11:24 mark of the second quarter. The Tigers needed three fourth down conversions to extend that drive, including a risky gamble on fourth and two at their own 29, but the Warsaw line delivered each and every time. All told, the Tigers went 4-for-4 in fourth down conversion attempts en route to the win, dominating the time of possession in the process.
“A lot of them were close,” said Curtis of those fourth down attempts. “You never feel confident until the final time runs off the clock with these guys because they’re a fine team. All credit to them. We just feel really good that we competed with and were able to beat a really good program in 6A.”
“We want to set the tone when we go for those fourth downs. Our coaches, they trust us to get two yards on a fourth down, and our offensive line, they’re great,” Amiss said. “They fire out low. When we need two yards, they know where the down markers are, and they’ll go after it. Just to take so much time off the clock. Their offense is great. Their quarterback is quick. To get them off the field for 10, 11 minutes at one time, that was a bonus for us.”
The Tigers out-gained their guests 426 yards to 280, all of it on the ground. They benefitted from a balanced three-back attack that saw Jaramillo run for 165 yards in 23 carries, Amiss amass 153 yards in 27 rushes and Marsh pile up another 103 yards in just seven touches.
“You don’t plan it like that. It’s just something that happens,” said Curtis. “All three of those kids are capable backs. I thought Keagan Larsh blocked his butt off. Our O line did a nice job.”
“We’re a very speedy group. We’re agile,” said Jaramillo, who leads Warsaw’s potent run game with 1,523 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. “Blake is a dog; he’s very fast. And Keagan is our power. He’s our beast, and he’s the one that blocks everything up front. He’s just amazing.”
Penn’s rushing game was paced by Kyle Riffel’s 138 yard in 22 carries. Favilla finished with 55 net yards in 17 rushes and went 9-of-14 for 87 yards through the air with two touchdowns versus one interception. The Kingsmen close at 6-4.
Warsaw improves to 9-2 and will look to extend its postseason run at 10-1 Merrillville next week. The Pirates won the Sectional 1 title with a narrow, 10-9 victory at Crown Point Friday night.