MERRILLVILE — As well as Warsaw played in last week’s historic sectional championship win, there were a few fumbles. As the margin for error got even slimmer in Friday’s regional showdown at Merrilville, those ball security issues reared their head again, and this time they proved more costly in a 42-28, season-ending loss to the Pirates.
Of course, a lot of it had to do with a very fast, big and pretty poised Merrillville lineup, too.
“We got away with it. Well, we didn’t get away with it, but it didn’t cost us the game,” said Warsaw coach Bart Curtis of the Tigers’ turnovers last week. “Here’s the thing — those reads were happening fast. We were trying to get the ball out and get it on the perimeter a little bit, and, wow, they fly to the football. They’re a good team. The credit goes to them. We’re not lined up and playing Sisters of the Poor. They’re a good outfit, and nothing would surprise me next week.”
After Warsaw took an early 21-7 advantage, a pair of fumbles cued two Merrillville touchdown drives, and the Pirates took a 28-21 advantage into halftime. They never trailed again.
The home team capitalized quickly on defensive lineman Nicholas Price’s fumble recovery at the Warsaw 9 at the 4:28 stop of the second quarter, scoring just two plays later on running back Darius Schultz’s 3-yard plunge up the middle to even the score at 21-all with Austin Pupek’s point-after kick. Warsaw was forced to punt for the first time Friday on its next possession but got the ball right back on a Caden Silveus interception of Aahric Whitehead at the Warsaw 44, but the Tigers gave it back just two plays later when Wyatt Amiss was stripped and Pirates linebacker Jaden Clark came up with the ball at the Tiger 48. The home team scored eight plays later on a 12-yard quarterback keeper from Peter Rodriguez to take the lead with 48 seconds remaining in the first half. Under Armour All-American Harrison Mevis missed a field goal attempt from around 50 yards out, and the Tigers trailed 28-21 at the half.
Warsaw jumped on the hosts early with two first-quarter touchdowns to take an initial 14-0 lead.
The Tigers drove 72 yards in 12 plays on the game’s opening possession, and Blake Marsh ran in a pitch to the right side from 30 yards out to put his team on the board at the 5:40 mark of the opening stanza. Warsaw held Merrillville to three and out on the ensuing series, then capitalized on a short field with a quick, three-play scoring drive capped off by a big touchdown connection from a scrambling Wyatt Amiss to Keagan Larsh for a 64-yard catch-and-carry up the middle that widened the advantage to 14-0 with Mevis’ second PAT of the night at the 3:21 stop of the quarter.
Merrillville would answer back, however, with a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive culminating in running back Damian Dixon’s 6-yard run around the left side with no time remaining in the first period to cut the Pirates’ deficit in half. The visitors responded in kind with a big kickoff return by Marsh and a four-play scoring drive of its own, finding pay dirt on some trickery when Amiss lateraled to Marsh, who then hit Jackson Dawson with a 23-yard TD pass out at the 9:54 stop of the second quarter.
But the Tigers’ two turnovers cost them two touchdowns, and they never led again.
“We had our runs, we had our shots, and it didn’t go our way. They’re real good. They’re fast and they’re big, and they just keep playing,” said Curtis. “They didn’t flinch when we got up 21-7, and I was hoping they would. I was hoping that they’d start pressing a little bit, and they didn’t. They came right back. They’re a well-coached team.”
The two teams went back and forth through a scoreless third quarter before the Pirates grabbed an advantage in the battle for field position when a pair of penalties forced Warsaw to punt from its own 19, and Merrillville got the ball back at its own 44 with 3:08 left in the period. Eight plays later — including a big fourth down conversion with 11 yards to go at the Tiger 32 — and the home team extended its lead to 35-21 with Rodriguez’s 3-yard run around the right side at the 11:20 stop of the fourth.
Warsaw would whittle that lead back to seven with a grinding, 18-play drive that featured a fourth down conversion by the Tigers at the Merrillville 29, leading up to Marsh’s 5-yard run right with 2:27 remaining. But Warsaw’s ensuing onside kick attempt was recovered by Johnson, and the Pirates pushed the score to its final margin in just three plays, Rodriguez finding a crease up the middle and keeping it for 32 yards with 1:44 on the clock. A fourth and seven pass attempt by the Tigers failed with just 50 seconds remaining, and Merrillville wound down the clock, moving to 11-1 and advancing to play for semi-state hardware at 9-3 Carmel next week.
“I should’ve kicked it deep. We had two timeouts left. But ifs and buts, you know?” said Curtis. “We battled to the bitter end. The score at the end — we had extra linebackers in playing Cover 0, and they got one late on us. But we battled one of the best teams in the state and had our shots. It didn’t work out. Credit to Merrillville, Coach (Brad) Seiss and his staff. But we took a step toward playing 6A football, and I’m proud of our kids for that. And my coaching staff. I can’t thank them enough. They’ve put an awful lot of time into these kids, and it’s a great thing to have guys like that.”
Merrillville finished with 383 offensive yards to 284 by its guests. Rodriguez ran for 161 yards to lead the Pirates’ ground attack, and he threw for 21 yards on 5-of-6 passing. Whitehead, who split duties behind center with him, went 5-of-11 for 98 passing yards, and Armani Glass hauled in five catches worth 69 yards.
Amiss amassed 68 yards rushing, while Marsh finished with 62 run yards mostly around the edges and also taking a few direct snaps for Warsaw in the fourth as well as his big kick return and touchdown pass to Dawson in the second. Amiss connected on 5-of-9 passes for 100 yards, and Larsh hauled in three of those for 85 yards.
The Tigers close a thrilling season with a strong 9-3 mark, a second-place Northern Lakes Conference finish and the program’s first-ever sectional championship in Curtis’ second year at the helm. Unfortunately, they must bid goodbye to a deep senior class that includes Amiss, Marsh and Larsh among others. After Friday’s season-ending loss, Warsaw’s upperclassmen lined up one-by-one to say goodbye to their younger teammates and coaches, then stood for an ovation by the rest of the team.
“Incredible what they’ve done for the city of Warsaw, for me personally,” said Curtis. “And not just this year’s seniors, last year’s seniors, too. This year’s juniors have a lot to measure up to. The bar has been set really high by the last two groups, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of their commitment and what they gave to this program and how flippin’ hard they play all of the time.”