Reminders of heritage linger for Cats

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Ryan Betz, right, and the rest of Jasper’s defense will be charged with the task of leashing Evansville Reitz’s vibrant offense in Friday’s Class 4A sectional championship. The Panthers have posted 40 or more points six times during their seven-game win streak. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium as the Wildcats will pursue their first sectional title since 2008.

Herald Sports Writer

It doesn’t take sifting through old record books covered in cobwebs to unveil the history and tradition of Jasper football.

In fact, reminders of the program’s grandeur are exhibited in spaces players frequent daily.

Just inside the entrance of the Wildcats’ locker room adjacent to Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium, 56 photos, hung symmetrically on the wall, remind each player of something: You are far from the first to don the jersey and have success, to boot.

Jasper team photos, dating to 1953, plaster the wall just outside the trainer’s room and coaches’ offices. There’s a uniformity to the collection. It suggests consistency — though no team photo after 2008 has been framed — a standardized way of doing things. And doing them right.

The tradition is impossible to ignore. Not just with the photos, but who’s in some of them. Wildcat defensive coordinator Nick Eckert browsed the photos before practice Tuesday.

“Let’s see, here I am,” said Eckert, looking at his senior year team photo from 1983. “And Maucker’s down here somewhere.”

He was referring to Geoff Mauck, the team’s offensive coordinator. Truth is, nearly the entire coaching staff — nine of the 12 coaches, including the two Jasper middle school coaches — sported the black and gold in high school. Acknowledging years past is inescapable for players, which is a good thing, said Wildcat coach Tony Ahrens, a 1978 graduate.

“I think the tradition thing like that is just something everybody knows is there. You try to rely on it a little bit. I think there’s a certain kind of unknown pressure from all the other guys that have ever played. These guys want to be able to say that they were a good team, if not a great team, in the line of all of them,” Ahrens said.

“And that’s kind of what tradition really is. Somewhere it starts, and that program builds, and then all the guys that have played in the past are sort of like, ‘Hmmm, let’s see what you guys can do. Can you match?’ It’s one of those trickle-down effects, you might say. You’re not going to let (past players) down. It’s just there. And you don’t want to let the pride of the program down.”

Needless to say, Jasper’s opponent in Friday’s Class 4A sectional championship, slated for 8 p.m. at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium, understands Ahrens’ notion as well.

Together, second-ranked Jasper (11-0) and Evansville Reitz (8-3) have combined for 1,137 wins in the programs’ histories, with the Panthers accounting for 651.

Confronting a program of equivalent stature furthers a team’s drive, Wildcat captain Nathan Leibering said.

“It kind of motivates us more just because we know we’re going to be playing someone who’s got a storied tradition. And here at Jasper, we’ve got a storied tradition,” he said. “We know that they’re always going to be good, every year. And that just motivates us more.”

Though comparable in success, each team’s on-field demonstrations display fewer parallels. Reitz showcases a big-play offense with an instinct for innovation, fueled by explosive playmakers. The Wildcats prefer a more disciplined approach, combining a stout defense with an offense that procures stability via running before meandering down other avenues of play-action, spread passing and the like.

Providing the most intrigue Friday night will be witnessing Jasper’s reputable defense, which surrendered a measly 36 yards of total offense to Seymour through the first three quarters of last Friday’s 45-13 sectional semifinal win, trying to sequester the unpredictable Panther attack, which has dropped 42 points per game during its current seven-game win streak.

Point productionwise, the two sides are nearly identical, with the Wildcats and Panthers both totaling 36 ppg on the season. However, Jasper’s defense has allowed just 9 ppg, while Reitz surrenders almost three times that.

To continue its defensive trend of dominance, Ahrens feels it comes down to locating the Panthers’ play makers: running back KeAndre Vaughn (21 touchdowns) and quarterback Drew Johnston (16 TDs). While Vaughn, a three-year starter, has toted carries all season, the aerial assault didn’t come to fruition until the fourth and fifth games of the season, said Lewis, who didn’t feel it was ready to be implemented in game situations prior to that point.

Vaughn has rushed for 1,265 yards and Johnson has accumulated 1,410 passing yards, 665 of which have gone to wide receiver Jordan Summers, who has corralled 52 catches, six going for scores.

For both sides, sustainability is crucial.

Eckert and Ahrens have communicated the same message to their defense: play soundly up front and negate big-play opportunities, a task falling primarily on the shoulders of defensive backs Jesse Schmitt and Ryan, Courtland and Brayden Betz.

“They rely on the big play,” Eckert said of the Panther offense. “They want to go over the top for the easy score. Not too often do they drive consistent. If it’s a long pass or a trick play or whatever, they rely on that.”

The Panthers expect to meet a team that blends preparation with physicality, and doesn’t hurt itself too often.

“No. 1, they are very fundamentally sound and they’re well coached,” Lewis said. “They play good, hard-nosed football, just like Jasper teams in the past. ... They’re going to be in the right place and know what they’re supposed to do at each snap of the ball.”

If the Panther defense can’t slow down the Wildcat rushing game, “you don’t stand a chance,” Lewis said. What begins as a rush transforms into play-action, where good blocking tight ends become good receiving tight ends, snatching passes from Nolan Ahrens — who Lewis feels has the potential to be better than his older brother, Austin, Jasper’s all-time leader in passing yards.

Yet in a game so big, with two schools possessing such repute, the difference revolves around a simple idea: handling the pressure.

“We’ve played in a lot of these big games, and it always gets down to simple stuff. Not play selection or anything like that. It’s gets down to, ‘Do you have the nerves to play in a game like this and not make the simple mistakes?’” said Tony Ahrens, who considers that to be the reason for Jasper’s fall to Evansville Central in last season’s sectional championship. “Those are things that are difference makers in the game. You just have to play smooth, sound football.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at

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