Cats find salvation, clear Reitz roadblock

Photos by Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Cody Jacob, left, hugged Philip Huebschman as the clock ran out and the Wildcats won Friday night’s Class 4A sectional championship 17-9 over Evansville Reitz at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium. Jasper collected the program’s 13th sectional title and earns a shot at top-ranked Columbus East in next weekend’s regional on the road. For a gallery of photos, click here

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — Ben Moore sat alone on the bench as the game’s culminating play arrived. His busted MCL hurt too much for him to stand. So the junior gingerly slid down the steel pew, scavenging for a peek through a treeline of teammates.

Jasper faced a fourth down inches inside Evansville Reitz territory with about two minutes left. Muscle a half-yard forward, and the Wildcats all but seal the sectional. Fail to find the measly measure, and the Panthers stare at just half a field to potentially knot up Friday’s Class 4A sectional championship in its final stages.

Finally, Moore could see it all unfold.

“I worked my way to find a crease,” Moore said.

He saw Tate Blessinger, his replacement. The sophomore cradled his ninth and final carry and plunged to the left.

“I just had to get it,” Blessinger said. “I didn’t even look for a gap. I just stuck it in as hard as I could, lowered my head and just ran straight at them. ... I knew I had it.”

One yard. One hope finally realized. With Reitz void of timeouts, the Wildcats enacted a fresh set of downs to bring them that elusive prize.

As the final minute evaporated at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium with two Nolan Ahrens kneel-downs, the Wildcats cemented a 17-9 victory and their first sectional championship since 2008.

Three of the past four seasons, Jasper’s tournament journey halted at Reitz’s hands, including a one-point heartbreak in last year’s sectional championship. This time, the Cats (11-1) summoned salvation.

“We just didn’t stop pushing. We didn’t give up, ever. We just kept pushing because we were going to get there. We were going to win the game,” Jasper senior Philip Huebschman said. “That was the only thought in our mind. There was no loss, there was no losing. It was win, win, win.”

The task ordered an “inclusive effort” from all, Jasper coach Tony Ahrens said. And it didn’t take him long to realize the Wildcats were primed to deliver.

“You could just tell, even before the game started. They had those pointed eyes, and they were looking at you for some guidance,” he said. “And then they went out and they just got after it.”

When it seemingly mattered most, the Cats extracted the necessary effort. As the Jasper offense stammered to gain traction in the second half, the defense heightened its play, allowing Reitz to total just five first downs in the final 24 minutes. After Panther quarterback Austin Reagan’s 57-yard touchdown toss brought Reitz within 14-9 early in the third quarter, the Cats clamped down. From there, Reagan completed just 2-of-9 passes for 21 yards and threw an interception to Courtland Betz.

The turnover came after Jasper’s third straight three-and-out possession and on Reitz’s first drive following the touchdown.

“Guy just ran a slant, I picked it up,” Betz recalled bluntly. “Huge momentum turn.”

After completing 9-of-11 passes for 131 yards in the first half, Nolan Ahrens assumed the middleman role after the intermission, as Jasper ran the ball on 28 of its 30 second-half offensive snaps (including three sacks). While Ahrens carved through the Panther secondary with strikes to four receivers — including a 34-yard score to Huebschman on the Cats’ second drive of the game — Moore functioned as the offense’s metronome, providing rhythm one tireless tote at a time.

The junior ran the ball 22 times for 93 yards before limping off the field with 15 minutes left after he re-aggravated a recovering MCL. From there, it was Blessinger — who scored the Cats’ second touchdown on a 2-yard scamper in the second quarter — and Ian Songer who accepted the brunt of the work, averaging 2.8 yards on their 11 combined rushes following Moore’s departure.

The tandem got the job done, but Moore subsidized the offense with relentless runs that rarely ended on initial contact.

“Ben Moore is probably one of the most reliable kids I’ve ever coached. He is a guy that just makes things happen,” Tony Ahrens said. “It seems like he’s stopped and all of a sudden he’ll pop through for another 4 or 5 yards. He’s just a guy that if you need something, his reliability is going to come through.”

With Moore incapacitated, the defense adopted the role of reliance. Senior defensive end Spencer Otto delivered a bone-jarring sack to force a third-and-long situation on Reitz’s first drive of the fourth quarter. One incompletion later, the Cats retrieved the ball off one of Reitz’s four punts.

All told, the opportunities were there, Reitz coach Andy Hape said. The Panthers (258 total yards) outgained Jasper (256) on offense despite running 17 fewer plays.

“It’s not like it wasn’t there,” Hape said. “We dropped some footballs and probably should have ran it a little more. We tried to put the ball in our playmakers’ hands ... and we just came up on the short end tonight.”

With the Wildcats in what appeared to be their most vulnerable state, they staged a salvo. Following a 19-yard punt that awarded Reitz the ball on Jasper’s 41-yard line with four minutes left, defensive end Austin Alles knifed into the backfield on third down for his third sack, bulldozing Reagan to the grass. A fist pump followed. Alles played possessed.

“He went crazy,” Huebschman said of the junior’s performance. “He was absolutely crazy.”
Alles then invaded the backfield on the following play along with senior Pablo Santos to force Reagan to chuck a wobbling pass downfield. It fell to the ground, turning the ball over to Jasper with 2:49 to go.

Seven plays later, the sectional was theirs.

As the Wildcats hastily made their way back to the locker room after postgame handshakes, Huebschman walked beside a hobbling Moore with the sectional trophy in his hand. Tony Ahrens followed close behind. Fans began chanting Ahrens’ name as he made his way toward the sub-bleacher tunnel. Before he could reach it, however, he shook hands with 2013 Jasper graduate Devon Traylor, who left last year’s defeat when he suffered a concussion and neck injury on Reitz’s game-winning field goal with nine seconds remaining.

“You’re just happy, for all the kids who ever played here,” Tony Ahrens said. “They’ve got so much pride in our program. All the kids that have gone through this program, they leave here and they’ve got a sense of pride. And they want to see us have success.”

Now the Cats descend on their toughest task yet, as they’ll confront top-ranked Columbus East (12-0) in next weekend’s regional on the road. Friday, however, the Cats’ psyche didn’t drift beyond the confines of Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium.

Parallel with his coach, Huebschman described the victory as one shared by more than the collection of kids in uniform. After a four-year sectional drought, intensified by the trio of losses to Reitz, the victory embodied much more.

“Not only did we do this for us, we did it for the town, for the guys that were in front of us, just everybody,” Huebschman said, music from the locker room blaring behind him. “That’s who I thought we did it for. It was for the town. Jasper needed this championship.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com