Collision of good, bad leaves Cats a little short

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Jasper’s Raife Milligan pounced on an Evansville Memorial fumble Friday night at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium, where the Wildcats christened their new turf field but accepted an 18-7 loss to Class 3A No. 7 Evansville Memorial in their season debut. For more photos from the game, click here.


JASPER — For Jasper, Friday’s football season opener felt a little like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk, then throwing out your back bending over to retrieve it.

Some positive discoveries, accompanied by a fair amount of pain.

The look of affliction was cast on Reece Milligan’s face after Class 3A No. 7 Evansville Memorial swiped an 18-7 victory on a night the Wildcats sensed could’ve very easily belonged to them instead. As the Wildcats unveiled the new adornments to Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium — the brand-new turf field that got baptized in its first varsity contest, and was also named Joe Rohleder Field in honor of the longtime Jasper assistant coach who was recognized in the dedication ceremony prior to kickoff — the hubbub of the night fizzled into a result that coach Tony Ahrens deemed as “frustrating.”

Milligan felt it, too.

“We played good at times, bad at times. I don’t know how I feel about this game,” said the Wildcat junior, whose 76-yard catch-and-run gave Jasper its lone touchdown in the second quarter. “Just move on to Southridge next week, and hopefully get the win then.”

The good: Jasper generally curbed the offense of a Memorial team that brings back eight offensive starters from a group that averaged nearly 35 points per game in last year’s sectional-winning season and rang up 35 points alone in the first half against the Cats a year ago. Even with the Wildcat offense being held down in kind Friday, Jasper accomplished enough good that Memorial never had a comfortable margin until scoring its last touchdown with nine minutes to play.

Jasper coach Tony Ahrens addressed quarterback Justin Persohn, who passed for 139 yards, with a bulk coming on a 76-yard touchdown toss to Reece Milligan for the lone Wildcat touchdown. For more photos from the game, click here.

The bad: Jasper ventured  inside Memorial’s 30-yard line three times but came away empty on each occasion. With time winding down in the first half and trailing 12-7, Jasper drove to the 7-yard line before being knocked backward on a sack and having to settle for a field goal attempt that swerved wide. Later in the second half, Jasper quarterback Justin Persohn (12-of-22, 139 yards passing) scampered deep into Memorial territory on a keeper run, but a penalty voided the Cats’ progress in another stalled drive.

“Like (Persohn) said at the end of the game, we were this close to making that a winning game,” said Jasper senior Anthony Kluemper, holding his thumb and index finger a half-inch apart to illustrate the margin. “There’s just a couple plays in there on offense, you take a couple plays back there, take a couple plays back on defense, and we win that ballgame.”

“I think that, if willing — and I think that our players are — we can become a much, much, much better team,” Ahrens said. “It’s a matter of simple work ethic and understanding what it takes to win games like that. That was a hard, tough-fought game. We just had too many mistakes.”

Memorial’s final touchdown typified the ebb and flow of Jasper’s progress. The Cats nearly had Tiger receiver Branson Combs cornered a couple times, but Combs pinballed away from tackles and zig-zagged to the end zone to complete a 42-yard scoring play that sunk Jasper into a 12-point hole.

“If the play’s live, everybody’s got to get to the ball, and that didn’t happen,” Ahrens said.
“Like I told the kids, it’s frustrating because we have every opportunity to win the game ... we had plays that very easily are going to score, but we’re not doing the assignment that’s being asked,” Ahrens added. “We’ve got to understand that each guy has a role, and each guy’s got to understand he’s got to follow that role in order for everything to work well. We had some good effort out there, we had some good defensive play, we had some spots where our offense really looked good. So we’ve just got to clean things up and be smart about how we’re playing.”

Former Jasper assistant football coach Joe Rohleder, left, and former head coach Jerry Brewer chatted after the new turf field was dedicated in honor of Rohleder before Friday’s game. Rohleder spent 30 years as an assistant coach in Jasper’s program under Brewer, who headed the Wildcat program for 44 years as his 368 career wins rank second overall in state history. For more photos from the game, click here.

Ahrens added “our defense, all in all, did real well,” though they were kept on the field too long for his liking. While Memorial’s Kenyon Ervin ran for 167 and scored twice (including a slick one-handed catch-and-run) and Michael Lindauer passed for 289 yards, Jasper mitigated some of the potential damage. Kluemper pounced for a sack among his pair of tackles for a loss, and the Cats managed a near endzone-to-endzone flip of field position within just two possessions in the second half, thanks to Raife Milligan’s fumble recovery and Malik Chatman’s 48-yard punt that bounced to the 2-yard line.

And while Jasper didn’t get a chance to showcase it much, the new synthetic surface at Alumni Stadium can be a game-changer. Reece Milligan, a multi-time state finalist in track, can vouch.

“Not to be cocky or anything, but I am a speedster, and I’ll tell you what, that turf does help a lot,” Milligan said with a wry smile. “It feels great. I’m just glad we have the community that allows us to have that. ... It’s a lot softer, but it kind of cuts you up a a little bit. But we can deal with that as long as it doesn’t hurt as bad to get hit. It feels a lot better than it did.”


Kluemper’s turf take: “Some people tell you that turf is harder; it’s not. You slide a little more across the field, other than that, it’s great,” he said. “When it gets wet, you don’t slide. Mainly, it’s not as slick. Your cleats dig in no matter what, no matter where you are on the field, it’s not like a grass field where you get patches of bad spots and holes in it. It’s really nice.”

With the turf officially broken in, it’s on to lessons learned for Jasper ahead of next Friday’s visit from Southridge (1-0). One could be derived from the pregame message given by the man who now bears the name of Jasper’s field. As Rohleder addressed the crowd before the game and offered his thanks, one of his parting thoughts was this: “If you get knocked down, get back up.”

“We lost this game, but nothing we can do about it now other than let it (tick) us off a little bit and bring that into the next game,” Kluemper said. “If we go undefeated the rest of the season, nobody’s going to remember this game. We’ve just got to come out and bring it next week.”

More on