Remembering the 2001 Football WildcatsOctober 13, 2020
By GREG ECKERLE
Special to the Herald
Jasper’s only football state championship, in 2001, had plenty of memorable story lines, including:
Their only loss, an early season 14-7 rain-delayed, late night setback at Heritage Hills that prompted some tinkering that led to the state title;
A stunning play call by Coach Jerry Brewer that twin brothers Ben and Chris Schmidt executed to win the regional over Zionsville;
A most unlikely comeback victory over Indianapolis Cathedral in the semi-state;
The only pass defensive co-captain and leading tackler Zach Mitchell caught all year that saved a key touchdown drive in the Class 4A state championship victory over Delta;
A separated shoulder that All State running back Brian Lewis fought through to star in the final two games;
Some stellar blocking in the state title game that coaches still rave about;
And a coveted state championship for Hall of Fame coach Brewer in the 43rd season of his storied 44-year career.
Brian Lewis, now Jasper’s athletic director, thinks the Wildcats may not have won the state that year if they hadn’t lost to Heritage Hills.
“We made some adjustments afterward to give us a bit more flexibility, and became a lot more diverse offensively,” Lewis said.
The power-running focus remained, but sprinkled in were plays to take advantage of the speedy, athletic Schmidt twins – receiver Chris caught more passes to get him to the edge, and quarterback Ben ran the ball more.
Maybe the most unusual play in Jasper history was the two-point conversion that beat Zionsville in double overtime in the regional, 18-17. After a Schmidt-to-Schmidt touchdown pass pulled Jasper to within 17-16 in the second overtime, right guard Alex Hensley recalled that Coach Brewer said in a sideline huddle, ‘This is your season, we’re going for two, we’re either going to move on or we’re going to end our season right here.’
Brewer remembers, “We didn’t think we could hold Zionsville in a third overtime, because they had a big back that was running all over us. We went for the victory by coming out with no backs, with people spread all over the field. We had never been in that formation before. People say we don’t pass. It was a pass play. We had Chris Schmidt and Brian Lewis split to the left side, and three other gentlemen split to the other. I can recall their linebackers hollering, ‘They have no backs,’ and pointing, because they don’t know where to go.”
The play didn’t unfold perfectly, as Lewis and Schmidt bumped into each other as they began their crossing route. And Hensley said Ben Schmidt nearly got sacked by a defender.
“I got pretty nervous seeing the defender come around the corner, thinking he was going to sack Ben," he said. "I dove at the defender, but didn’t have a chance to hit him. But Ben was fast, he just juked the defender, got around him, and passed to his brother Chris in the end zone. You would have thought that ball was in the air for about an hour, because we knew the season was all right there, win it or lose it. It was a shocker to see a Jasper team come out five wide. It was a heck of a good idea. I was really proud of that win, probably more than the rest, because Zionsville was a hard-nosed football team.”
Unknown to anyone else at the time, Lewis had separated his shoulder in a play with a few minutes left in regulation.
“I remember them calling a tailback pass at the end of regulation, but I couldn’t pick my arm up, so I told Ben and Chris there’s no way I could throw a ball, so I ran it. But the play that always sticks out is the winning two-point conversion, because people can’t believe we were five wide,” said Lewis with a laugh.
Lewis was the intended receiver on the play, because teams didn’t expect him to be catching a pass out of the backfield. But after Lewis and Chris Schmidt bumped, Lewis inadvertently ran into Schmidt’s defender, leaving Schmidt wide open for the historic conversion.
In the semi-state, Jasper was in a huge hole to Indianapolis Cathedral, down 21-7 with only nine minutes left, and Cathedral had the ball. But from there, an opportunistic Jasper defense forced two fumbles and blocked a punt, and Lewis ran for three touchdowns in the final six minutes for a highly improbable 27-21 victory.
“People were leaving the game, that’s how bad we were down,” said Hensley. “But then the defense just had a different look about them. We still truly believed we were going to win. One fumble was caused by nose guard Nick Gerber, who was ornery and could just manhandle people. He hit that quarterback so hard that the guy is probably still feeling it. I hated blocking Gerber in practice, he was a force. On offense, on one late drive, we were close to the goal line, and a play came in to throw the ball, and we were all like, 'No, give the ball to Lewis,' because we were frustrated with the way we were playing.
“After beating Zionsville and Cathedral, we had the utmost confidence," he continued. "Losing wasn’t even a fear. We just enjoyed the moment, knowing it was the last time we’d play together. It was a really special group of seniors, and a special time. It’s neat to always be tied to that.”
Doctors had told Lewis he couldn’t injure his separated shoulder any further, so he took a shot to numb the pain before the semi-state and state games and proceeded to run wild.
Then-Assistant coach and later head coach Tony Ahrens remembers, “Lewis is a tough kid, he showed a lot of guts there. He was very physical and determined, and definitely wanted the ball.”
Lewis ravaged the Delta defense for Class 4A state title game records of 211 rushing yards on 35 carries and four touchdowns.
Ahrens and another assistant coach, Geoff Mauck, particularly recall Jasper’s blocking prowess in the 35-20 win.
“Fullback Matt Messmer played like a stud, destroying their defensive ends when we ran our off-tackle power plays,” said Ahrens. “He put the hammer down. And Andy Schroeder did a great job at left tackle. I remember one huge first down we got, he took a knee and pointed in the first down motion. It was so funny to see him do that, because here’s a kid that moved from fullback to left tackle, and when you have unselfish guys willing to play a role they were initially skeptical of, that’s what makes teams really good.”
Mauck recalled, “The offensive line was just bulldozing those guys, it was impressive. And the Delta defensive ends were running up field trying to get out of Matt Messmer’s way. They were tired of getting hit by him.”
One key play call often overlooked in the state championship game was after Delta drew to within 21-13 in the third quarter. On the next possession, Jasper faced a crucial third-and-thirteen, and in came a play to throw to tight end Zach Mitchell, who hadn’t caught a pass all season. He led Jasper with eight tackles against Delta, and also sacked their quarterback once, but his offensive duty was mainly blocking.
“I was a little shocked that the call was to throw the ball to me,” said Mitchell. “There were definitely some nerves, but I was ready. It was a great coaching call, because Delta probably wasn’t looking for me to catch the ball. I was open for the pass, and Ben hit me right in the numbers. I recall spinning off a tackle to get an extra few yards to get the first down.”
Mitchell made the first down by one yard, and the drive ended in a Lewis touchdown and some breathing room at 28-13.
Mitchell still laughs about some ribbing he took from teammates after they watched the game film. After his catch, one of his legs cramped, and the film showed his leg sputtering, moving up and down.
“They thought I was that excited for catching the ball,” chuckled Mitchell, “when I actually had a cramp.”
Five Jasper players made the All State team: Lewis, Chris Schmidt, defensive lineman Phil Krodel, offensive lineman Josh Oates and kicker Justin Mehringer. Team captains were Krodel, Lewis, Mitchell and Hensley — who also won the Class 4A Mental Attitude Award.
As with any football state champion, the team’s off-season strength and conditioning work was a huge factor. A good example of that was the effort put in by assistant coaches Ahrens and Mauck to help turn Lewis into Jasper’s third-leading career rusher. Lewis had asked Ahrens earlier what he needed to do to become the starting tailback. Ahrens’ no-nonsense answer was to get into better shape, become faster and stronger.
So, Lewis and Mauck ran three miles together several times a week on summer mornings at six o’clock, then ran sprints wearing a harness hooked to a heavily-weighted sled. That regimen was enhanced by Lewis and Ahrens later lifting weights with a vengeance.
“Coach Ahrens would challenge you in the weight room like nobody you could ever imagine,” said Lewis. “He’d wear himself out pushing you. And he taught me how to see things ahead of time as a running back.”
“We trained our kids hard so we’d be OK in the second half, when a lot of teams break down,” said Ahrens. “They were willing to be in shape, and to do things necessary for success. It was a lot of fun coaching guys like that. After challenging them, it’s so good to see kids’ eyes light up when they have success.”
For Lewis, the state title was particularly memorable because of how his family shared in the moment, and how special of a bond his teammates had with each other and Coach Brewer. He remembered how his older brother Michael wrote him a card of encouragement before every tournament game. Michael had been runner-up for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball at Jasper, and had just set the career assist record at Indiana University.
“I still have his cards,” said Brian. “In the one before the state final, he said you’re in uncharted waters because I’ve not been that far. Those cards meant a lot to me.”
Also meaning a lot to him was having his father, Denny, and his grandfather, Gene Cato, on the field with him for the state finals medal ceremony. Denny was Jasper’s athletic director at the time. Cato, a former Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner, was brought down to the field by Commissioner Blake Ress to put the championship medals around the necks of Brian and Denny.
“The group of people on that state championship team is what you dream of,” said Lewis. “When people disagreed, you could call people out, have discussions, and still be buddies afterward. It was as close a group as I’ve been around. We were very business-like. Guys didn’t take the easy way out of drills. There was a lot of competitive edge. I don’t ever remember when we didn’t want to go to practice. It was a pretty focused group of guys that enjoyed what we were doing. It was just hard-nosed, physical play. Our linemen put some hits on people. And the coaches and players had a really good relationship. Coach Brewer will always hold a very special place with me. Him getting over the top that year meant so much to us, because you knew how good he was, and he was running out of chances.”
After the team returned to Jasper, the seniors congregated on their home field for one jubilant, final picture on the turf they loved so much. Brewer placed a copy of that picture in a most prominent place, right on his refrigerator, which he said, “I look at repeatedly because they were all a very close-knit group.”
(Greg Eckerle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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