Cats coast but seek deeper fulfillment

Chet Strange/Special to the Herald
Junior quarterback Nolan Ahrens stiff-armed Mount Vernon’s Austin Sitzman on Friday at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium in Jasper. Jasper stymied Big Eight Conference foe Mount Vernon 42-14 and Ahrens’ 151 passing yards elevated his season total to 1,661 — a Jasper single-season record. For a gallery of photos, click here.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — The voice was penetrating. It didn’t echo a hint of satisfaction or congratulatory pep.

Instead, as Class 4A No. 6 Jasper sat silently inside its locker room following a 42-14 drubbing of Mount Vernon on Friday night at Jerry Brewer Stadium, Wildcat coach Tony Ahrens imparted a blunt, sincere and urgent message to his squad.

He didn’t allude to Jasper’s fifth 40-plus point offensive exhibition on the season. There was no mention made to his son and the team’s quarterback Nolan Ahrens eclipsing the program’s single-season passing record. Rather, the memorandum cut a deep incision into whatever revelry had begun ballooning after Jasper’s regular-season finale Friday night.

If things don’t change, Tony Ahrens stressed, any thoughts of postseason prosperity will simply become a pipe dream.

“We’ve rehearsed with our team, we have a good team. We have a good football team. ... But the fact of the matter is, there’s ingredients that you need in football,” Tony Ahrens said. “Some emotion. You’ve got to have that. You’ve got to play fundamental football, where we just line up and go at people. And instead, we’re just doing our own thing. ... That discipline has to be there. You can’t just go and do your own thing. The kids are just going to have to understand, if they don’t hear that message quick, they’re going to be one-and-done quick in the tournament.”

It didn’t take long for Jasper (8-1, 5-1) to start hearing the wrath from its coaching staff. When the host Wildcats’ offense stammered to a three-and-out after the opening kickoff, Mount Vernon charged 76 yards on eight plays to take a 7-0 lead. As the Jasper defense walked off the field, it became buried in a spate of unrestrained critiques from a disgruntled coaching staff, including an emphatic Nick Eckert, Jasper’s defensive coordinator.

“We just weren’t lining up straight, we weren’t communicating very well, we missed assignments,” Jasper cornerback Grant Theil said.

“Coach (Eckert) got on us … and we kind of picked it up and our intensity and our emotion just kind of went from there.”

From there, Mount Vernon (3-6, 3-3) limped through five consecutive possessions without picking up a first down. The visiting Cats booted four of their six punts before picking up their only other first down of the opening half after tallying three on the initial drive. On the third play of the second quarter, Theil lunged for an interception off a dropped pass at Mount Vernon’s 34-yard line.

As Tony Ahrens explained, that intensity must become contagious. When Jasper shows it, the returns follow. The inconsistency is what’s haunted the Wildcats, who finished runner-up in the conference after Mount Carmel blanked Boonville 41-0 Friday.

“This team has the ability. And they have (produced). And they do things, in spurts,” Ahrens said.

“We’re sort of like playing in mud. We’re just moving around out there slow. We got beat in the secondary a few times because we’d hit a guy and then we’d just die off on our defense. It’s got to be intense, tough, until the whistle blows or big plays are going to happen.”

Six plays after Theil’s full-extension swipe, Nolan Ahrens connected with wideout Zach Wood on a perfect touch pass into double coverage in the back left side of the endzone, the pair’s third and final touchdown connection of the game. Ahrens finished 13-of-19 passing (all but one attempt coming in the first half) for 152 yards. Wood accounted for eight of those catches, compiling 113 receiving yards.

“We’re just doing what we’ve been doing all season,” Wood said. “He just gives me signals, (I) do what he says, catch it. It’s just routine.”

And with a 10-yard hitch connection between the junior playcaller and senior receiver toward the end of the first quarter, Ahrens eclipsed his brother Austin’s single-season passing record (1,572 yards). The younger Ahrens concluded the regular season with 1,661 yards.

Yet the look on Wood’s face after the game suggested what the Cats are doing simply isn’t enough. In Tony Ahrens’ comments, the palpable dearth of fulfillment spoke louder than his words.
“If we don’t prepare and concentrate, we could be sent home early,” Wood said. “All the guys have to buckle down. We have to want it.”

In more objective analysis, Tony Ahrens said the team must also revert back to a more balanced attack of run and pass, which becomes a dicey proposition given a few injury developments. While junior Ben Moore is expected to suit up in next week’s sectional opener at Evansville Harrison (1-7) after missing Friday’s clash to nurse an injured MCL, Jasper’s leading rusher Nick Hale (12 rushes, 65 yards) limped back to the locker room before halftime and didn’t see the field in the second half. His diagnosis remained unclear after the game. Senior lineman Neil Rose missed the majority of the game as well, as he had ice bags strapped to his sprained ankle by the end of the opening quarter.

Beyond the personnel, however, Ahrens stressed the need for accountability.

The team’s win total is commendable. Sure. The passing record was surpassed. Terrific. But praise breeds complacency, the coach warned. And as Jasper embarks on the quest for its first sectional title since 2008, Ahrens wants to make sure that contentment doesn’t become the Wildcats’ fatal flaw.

“One thing that will kill a team is too much fluff,” he said. “If you’re going to pepper these kids with all these great things that they’re doing and all that good stuff, 42 points on the board and all this, and all of the sudden they go to sleep. ”˜Oh, we’ll be OK next week.’ No, we won’t. That isn’t going to happen. We need to make sure we come out and start games out and play tough.”

Added Theil: “If we come out like that in the postseason against (Evansville) Harrison or any other team, we’re just going to get beat. We’ve got to pick it up and just bring it.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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