Pats hunt for continued drive through adversity

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Heritage Hills quarterback Caleb Mulzer fired a pass as Evansville Mater Dei’s Bennet Kempf converged on defense Friday night in the Patriots’ season opener in Lincoln City. The Class 2A No. 3 Wildcats won 37-14, scoring the final 23 points of the game. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Writer

LINCOLN CITY — Sure, the bleeding subsided for a play, but Sean Schaefer knew the gash was far from permanently dammed.

After the Heritage Hills junior cornerback teamed with linebacker Zach Jones to wallop Evansville Mater Dei’s Nolan Goebel as he tiptoed the right sideline, the Wildcat running back’s helmet popped off on impact, forcing the shifty carrier to retire to the bench for a play midway through the third quarter.

The threat was temporarily deactivated. However, Schaefer realized Mater Dei’s bank of backs was far from shallow.

“He’s a great runner,” Schaefer said of Goebel. “But Mater Dei’s still got some other good running backs.

“With them, never underestimate anybody.”

Sure, Goebel’s evasive scampers translated into a trio of scores for the Class 2A No. 3 Wildcats in their 37-14 drubbing of Heritage Hills on Friday in Lincoln City. But as Schaefer underlined, Mater Dei’s prospects weren’t limited to just one player.

Despite the 5-foot-8 speedster’s 140 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, the Wildcats’ supporting cast delivered the contest’s most decisive plays — a 60-yard touchdown run by Julian Weidener on Mater Dei’s second drive and a 79-yard interception return by Jacob Fleming with under a minute to play in the first half. From that point, a clash that appeared packed with promise for the Patriots fizzled.

For a while, Heritage Hills exchanged punches with the Pocket City power. After the Wildcats staged a 16-play, 87-yard drive on their first possession, the Patriots promptly responded, trudging 74 yards in 14 plays to even things at 7.

 And with under a minute to play in the opening half, the Patriots crept toward another score as they rested just inside the Mater Dei 30-yard line.

Yet as linebackers brought pressure on Patriot quarterback Caleb Mulzer — making his first varsity start — a cross-field sling was nabbed by Mater Dei defensive back Jacob Fleming, who was nestled in a zone defense. The cornerback blazed 79 yards up the left sideline to nudge the Wildcats ahead 21-14 with 43 seconds to play in the half.

“He turned into a little bit of a sophomore robot and threw what he’d been throwing all week against (man-to-man coverage),” Patriot coach Todd Wilkerson said of Mulzer, who had already completed four passes for 64 yards up to that point. “And that’s one of those things that you kick yourself and say, ”˜Well, maybe I shouldn’t have put that on him.’ But he had some nice throws. We were down there, I felt like we had to take a shot and take advantage of that field position. But you can’t do that to a team like Mater Dei. You can’t give them something like that. That was huge.”

The interception return signaled the second expansive scoring play of the second quarter for the Wildcats. On the first play from scrimmage after the Patriots knotted the game at 7-all off a Kenton Crews 2-yard run, Weidener (5 rushes, 93 yards) eluded a back-field tackler, curved around the left side and scampered 60 yards for a score.

Eleven seconds after tying the game, the Patriots found themselves trailing once again.

“We felt good about driving the ball. We had some really nice, long drives, threw it when we had to, but that takes the air out of your balloon when you give up two easy scores in the first half,” Wilkerson said.

After the interception return, the Patriots never garnered a response. The Wildcat lead simply ballooned.

Once the second half began, the Patriots’ inspired first-half play seemed to vanish. While they compiled 11 first downs in the opening 24 minutes, the Patriots mustered just two the entire second half. They finished the third quarter with negative-1 yards of offense. Gabe Konerding, Heritage Hills’ leading rusher, stockpiled 66 yards on 16 carries in the first half, yet finished the game with 91 yards altogether. With exception to a quarterback kneel on the game’s final play, three of the Patriots’ four second-half possessions ended in three-and-outs.

Given the stark contrast in halves, the Patriots’ effort must be evaluated as a dichotomy of sorts, Wilkerson said.

Their performance in the first half indicated potential. Last season, Heritage Hills had trailed Mater Dei 21-0 at the half. Friday, they were one misstep and a few players from taking a lead into the locker room. Mulzer, starting in his first varsity game, completed a 30-yard strike to Crews (three receptions, 52 yards) before finding the sophomore again two plays later on a 19-yard out-route, this time for a touchdown.

However, the second half typified a flat-lining with which the Patriot coach was “very disappointed.” And with improved Tell City (1-0) looming next Friday and Class 4A No. 4 Jasper (1-0) visiting the Patriots two weeks later, learning how to handle the in-game setbacks must become a priority, Wilkerson said.

“This team … I think they had some doubts about how they could really play. And I think they showed in that first half how they can play,” Wilkerson said. “But if you have a little adversity, and then the doubts come in, and we’ve got to take care of that.”

After the contest, Schaefer stood outside the Patriot locker room with a bandage on his right thumb. After making a hit three plays into the contest, a clip on his helmet had disengaged, and in trying to repair the malfunction, he’d gashed his thumb. He whiped the blood on his pants and played the rest of the series before stepping off to attend to the helmet defect.

In reality, the episode served as a microcosm for what Schaefer feels must be stressed among his teammates: No matter what, effort must never falter.

 “We’ve just got to play for four quarters. We play with heart for the first half but didn’t come out (in the second half) with that full intensity that we needed to make it,” Schaefer said. “We played great the first half. I’m very pleased with how we did, besides a couple mistakes. But we’ve just got to bring that to the second half. I think we could have stayed with them. We had a good chance, we’ve just got to keep our heads up and stay with it. We’re right there.”

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