By Keith Knepp
NAPPANEE — While the final score was 44-14 in favor of NorthWood, the first few minutes of the game looked relatively promising for the visiting Warriors.
After going three-and-out on their first drive after the opening kickoff, the fourth down punt by Jaxon Brown was mishandled by NorthWood’s Wes Yoder and quickly pounced on by the Wawasee coverage team.
A 34-yard pass from Brown to Landen Alexander put the visitors deep into NorthWood territory before many of the spectators at Andrews Field had even found their seats. Wawasee managed to advance the ball to the Panther six yard line before they faced a fourth down decision.
Wawasee head coach Jon Reutebuch elected to send out senior kicker Caleb Clevenger to try to put the first points on the board against the favored Panthers. Clevenger’s 23-yard attempt was met by a plethora of defensive hands to squelch the Warrior drive.
From there, things quickly went downhill for the boys from Syracuse. Panther junior Kaden Lone found paydirt on a 72-yard quarterback keeper, dancing down the right sideline put NorthWood up 7-0 following the extra point by Dominic De Freitas with 6:50 to go in the first stanza on homecoming nigh in Nappanee.
After a quick Wawasee possession, NorthWood would strike again before the first bell on a 15-yard pass from Lone to junior classmate JJ Payne. The score on first down came after a successful fourth-and-one conversion that kept the drive alive. Another De Freitas extra point put the home team up 14-0 after one.
NorthWood’s next opportunity would come after a Wawasee punt out of its own end zone gave the Panthers excellent field position at the Warrior 27 yard line. A connection from Lone to Payne would put them on the one yard line, which made for an easy QB plunge across the goal line for Lone, which would put NorthWood up 21-0 with 8:48 left in the half.
The Panthers thought they had their fourth TD of the night on a 52-yard scamper by Yoder, but the play was negated by a holding call at the line of scrimmage. The Warriors would get the ball back and would embark on their first score of the night.
A change at quarterback for the Warriors brought Lucas Ringler under center, which would prove to be the right move as Ringler called his own number and made a long run down to the NorthWood 10. Cameron Zimmerman would take a handoff eight yards to the Panther two before Ringler would carry it in for the first Warrior score. Clevinger added the point after try to cut the NorthWood lead to 21-7.
Any perceived Warrior momentum was quickly snuffed out on the ensuing Panther drive. A beautiful 46-yard catch and run into the end zone by NorthWood’s Parker Filley would take the score to 27-7 with 2:47 left in the quarter. De Freitas’s kick was blocked and it appeared the teams would head into halftime with the Warriors in a 20-point hole.
NorthWood, however, managed to get the ball back again before the whistle. A 24-yard run by Ethan Evers would set DeFreitas up for a 36-yard field goal, upping the NorthWood lead to 30-7.
The second half was more of the same. Backup NorthWood quarterback Owen Roeder would take over signal calling duties and would lead his team down to the one yard line following an 11-yard strike to Payne. From there, Lone toted the ball across the line and De Freitas would add his seventh point of the game to move the lead to 37-7 with 7:18 to go in the third quarter.
The Panthers would get their final score on a 16-yard dash down the right sideline by Yoder. De Freitas would add the XP to take the lead to 44-7.
Wawasee would get the last points of the night. After a long, sustained drive, Ringler kept the ball for a one-yard TD with 2:45 to go. Clevenger tacked on the extra to get to the final score.
“We still got a lot of work to do,” said Wawasee’s Reutebuch after the game. “It’d be nice if we had our whole team together. We’re missing a couple of linemen again, a DB, a receiver. We’ve had every game at least eight or nine kids missing. It’s been a struggle all season, but the kids understand that.
“We just gotta plug in and next guy be up and we’re going to go out and battle and do the best we can until we get to that full compliment. I just told them right here we come in tomorrow, take care of our bumps and bruises, watch on film, fix a few things we need to fix and have our eyes on the next game against Plymouth.”
The victory was NorthWood head coach Nate Andrews 100th as a head coach. The son of the late Jim Andrews, who also guided the Panthers to many victories during his storied tenure on the NorthWood sideline, Nate began his head coaching career at Lapel High School where he won 27 games in five seasons with the Bulldogs. From there he spent two years and earned 15 wins at Western High School in Russiaville before returning to his alma mater, where his seven years have netted 58 victories, including tonight’s.
“There was a lot of good, there’s a lot to work on,” said Andrews on his team’s performance. “A lot of kids played. We made some plays and there were a lot of plays we didn’t make that we’re going to have to have down the stretch. Proud of our kids. It’s been a tough week and we’ve persevered and stuck together. We’ve got to continue to stick together to keep going.”