Jasper’s hot pursuit freezes Harrison threats

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Moises Valenciano, left, and Tate Blessinger converged from both sides to bring down Harrison’s Maliek Parker. The Cats limited the Warriors to 62 yards of total offense. A gallery of photos can be found here.

Herald Sports Editor

EVANSVILLE — Jasper senior Spencer Otto was wise to a truth, that Evansvile Harrison was “definitely faster than us.”

Perhaps so. But that begs a hypothetical question: If you never gather inertia, do you still wield screaming speed?

The Wildcats may never decipher the riddle. Because for all but the final minute of Friday’s Class 4A sectional opener, the Wildcats leashed Evansville Harrison’s typical vibrant offense from its usual gallop to little more than a gurgle.

Sixth-ranked Jasper throttled Harrison 40-7, and only an inconsequential touchdown in the final minute allowed the Warriors to dodge a shutout. By that time, Jasper’s starters were resting comfortably on the sideline, awaiting next Friday’s semifinal matchup at home against Evansville Central. And in nearly blanking a team that stacked up 40 points against Castle and 41 against Evansville Memorial in the prior three weeks, affirmation arrived that the Cats made the right choice.

Jasper coach Tony Ahrens bandied about different defensive possibilities this week with defensive coordinator Nick Eckert. They thought about a read-and-react defense. But this was no time for conservatism. Instead, they called for a super-blitzing, hard-charging, hair-on-fire attitude.

“We’ve not come at somebody quite that much. That’s the first time we really kind of laid our ears back and went after people,” Ahrens said. “Bottom line, we just came to the conclusion that we can’t sit back there and let them do what they want to do.”

Instead, Harrison did practically nothing, at least from a numbers vantage point.

Prior to their lone scoring drive, the Warriors totaled negative-2 yards of offense on 10 possessions. There were also mind games at work with Jasper’s go-get-’em plan, as the Cats (9-1) wanted to hasten freshman quarterback David Felton into quick decisions.

Jasper’s Cal Krueger plucked an interception when Felton threw on the run, and Grant Theil also snared a thank-you pick of a ball that pinged off a Warrior receiver’s hands. And facing an unremitting blitz, Felton and backfield speedster Kyndrick Hancock rarely found a glimpse to tote the ball to the edges or out in open space.

“We knew we needed to come out and play to the best of our ability and rally around the ball,” Otto said. “We just had to group tackle all night, because they were definitely faster than us.”

Shackling Harrison’s threats spared Jasper from potential damage as its offense wobbled uncharacteristically in patches. Quarterback Nolan Ahrens, who had tossed just four interceptions all season, fired three picks Friday. Otherwise, the offense hummed with a bit of flair, to boot.

Krueger boomed a pair of field goals, including a 42-yarder that tied Kirk Kendall’s school record. Ahrens linked with Philip Huebschman for two touchdowns, including a 1-yard pitch on a play the Cats barely got off in time to beat the first-half horn after driving 72 yards in 89 seconds. Later, Ahrens rolled to his left and stayed on his feet long enough to locate just a glimmer of an opening, which was all Austin Alles needed to corral a 26-yard touchdown reception. And Ben Moore accepted the workload for an injured Nick Hale, punching in a pair of 3-yard scores among his 25 carries worth 77 yards.

Jasper jumped Harrison for a 27-0 halftime advantage, and the first possession of the third quarter indicated that a new half wasn’t going to bring much forward progress. One-yard loss. Then backward 4 more for Felton. And another 9-yard deduction for the Warrior QB, courtesy of Cole Kreilein.

“Eck (Nick Eckert) said we put more pressure on them, the better we’d be, and we put a hell of a lot of pressure on them, and it paid off, for sure,” Wildcat senior Scott Stallwood said.

Jasper spilled the quarterback combo of Felton and Lawan Rollins for six sacks, and three came from Stallwood — a guy who felt like he’s been stuck in a linebacker’s body all along. Tony Ahrens said the plan wouldn’t have worked without the all-in ferocity of each man on defense. But he added that “the lead dog” was Stallwood, a convert from the defensive backfield with a nose for predatory pursuit.

“I started out this year, pretty well played safety my whole life, and coach decided to put me in there at middle linebacker,” Stallwood said. “At safety I always liked coming up on the run, sometimes I’d get beat deep. At linebacker, that’s pretty well my key, come up on the run, hit people hard, and that’s what I love doing. I think that’s the place for me, really.”

For every lick Stallwood applied, there was more frisky pursuit where that came from. A crunching takedown from Moises Valenciano, a sack leveled by Carson Englert and a stop from Landon Jeffers, who flagged down Rollins for a 23-yard loss with Jasper’s reserves on the field against Harrison’s top unit.

To the Wildcat coach, the stonewalling defense was only successful because the Cats had no weak link.

“If you’re going to go half speed and then hit a little bit and then stop, it’s not going to be effective. The kids are the ones that made it effective,” Ahrens said. “They bought into it, they went after it, and boy, I think they’re excited about playing that way.”

If the Cats want more, they’ve come to the right place. The next few weeks could necessitate a more proactive approach as well, as Ahrens acknowledged that “we’re going to have to be a little bit more attackful in spots.”

Next week, the Cats will try to dilute an Evansville Central squad that averages 47 points a game and lit up Seymour for 77 points Friday. If Jasper survives the Bears (7-3), the Cats are likely bound for another showdown with nemesis Evansville Reitz (7-3), which has won the last three games in the series.

“Central and Reitz, from what we’ve seen, they like to run, so we just need to focus on stopping the run first and taking care of pass,” Otto said. “We can do both, we can take care of run and pass, so we just need to come with the same intensity next week.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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