By Nick Goralczyk
MISHAWAKA – Slobberknocker.
That’s a term for true football diehards. So it was no surprise that Friday’s gridiron showdown between Warsaw and Mishawaka was described by Warsaw principal and former football coach, Troy Akers, as, “a real slobberknocker.”
A stark contrast to Thursday night’s NFL season kickoff which featured little defense and outrageous passing numbers, Friday’s gritty high school game featured tons of defense and almost no passing. Though it was a dominant defensive effort by both teams, Warsaw was able to outlast the Cavemen for a thrilling 17-15 victory at Steele Stadium.
“I can’t say enough about the job our kids did,” explained an ecstatic Warsaw head coach Bart Curtis before going right to thanking his defensive coaching staff. “Coach Kris Hueber, Jake Cauhorn, Chad Gabrich, Marc Huffer. Those guys put together what I think is a great game plan. (Mishawaka’s) staff put together a hell of a game plan as well.
“What a high school game. And if we’d lost 15-14, I’d still say it was a hell of a high school game.”
Curtis’ team set the tone early on defense with a scoop-and-score touchdown off a Mishawaka fumble on the second snap of the game. Jonney Burritt was the one to grab the ball and go 12 yards for the game’s opening score.
The Tigers would find paydirt again with a long touchdown drive that was capped by a one-yard run from German Flores-Ortega. With just over five minutes to play in the first quarter Warsaw led the high-anticipated Northern lakes Conference showdown 14-0.
“We got off to that fast start and, you know, it’s almost a curse,” Curtis explained.
A curse indeed, or so it seemed for a while.
Mishawaka responded to the second Tiger score with a 61-yard kick return from Davion Taylor. That set up the first score of the evening from the Cavemen, a one-yard punch-in from and the two-point conversion, both from sophomore Brady Fisher. Fisher, making his first career start due to a knee injury to his brother Justin, led another scoring drive to help the Cavemen take a 15-14 lead into the half.
The defensive dog fight in the first half turned into a all-out stalemate in the second half. All but one play of the final two quarters was played on Warsaw’s half of the field.
The Tigers punted once on their opening drive of the third quarter, then went into a exchange of turnover-on-downs with the Cavemen. Warsaw would make what seemed like a momentum shifting stop of the other’s offense, only to have the same thing happen when Mishawaka’s defense took the field.
The majority of the second half was played between the 20 and 30 yard lines of the Tigers. Tufts of dirt were all over the field from both teams simply trying to grind out a few yards only to be met with more and more frustration on the offensive side of the ball.
Warsaw, once again, stuffed Mishawaka on a fourth-and-short which was then followed up by a personal foul against the Cavemen. The Tigers finally had their biggest movement of field position of the second half thanks to the penalty, starting at their own 37 with just over four minutes to play.
Then, finally, it happened. Julius Jones found daylight. Jones, who was held to 61 yards rushing the contest, used a big block from Bryson Brown to go 52 yards, setting up the Tigers with a first-and-goal at the seven yard line.
Another defensive stand from the Cavemen led Curtis to putting the game on the foot of his freshman kicker Mason Smythe.
“How about our freshman kicker?” Curtis said with a big grin. “There was much discussion about what we should do. We couldn’t tell if we were on the one or two.”
But Curtis wanted no regrets and trusted his specialist.
“I didn’t want to walk away losing 15-14 with a kid that can kick the ball through the uprights.”
Smythe did not disappoint. The freshman nailed the go-ahead 19-yard attempt and put the game back into the hands of the red-hot Tiger defense. Russ Winchester and Isaac Beam were immovable objects in the heart of Warsaw’s defense all night and stayed true to form to help fuel one final stand and seal the victory.
A big defensive stand was a fitting end to a night full of great defense. Even more fitting when that included a tribute to man that loved great defensive football.
“What and honor and a privilege it is to come up here and play and honor Gregg Smith,” Curtis remarked. “I told (Smith’s son) Mason after the game, ‘Your dad would’ve loved this game because it was all defense.’”
Smith, a Mishawaka graduate and long-time teacher and coach serving under multiple head coaches including Curtis, died tragically in March in an accident at his home. ‘Smitty’ was remembered before Friday’s game with a video tribute and will forever be remembered in Steele Stadium as a sign was put up in his honor on the press box. Both the Mishawka and Warsaw staffs wore shirts honoring Smith. Smith’s two sons, Mason and Kaden, are both members of the football team at Mishawaka.
Warsaw (3-1, 2-0 NLC) finished the night with 245 yards of total offense to Mishawaka’s (3-1, 1-1 NLC) 154 yards. The Tigers will return to Fisher Field for homecoming next Friday to host Northridge (4-0, 2-0 NLC) in another huge NLC battle.