Some risks flop, but others pay big for Jasper

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Austin Alles outran the Evansville Reitz defense after reeling in a catch off a fake punt in Friday’s Class 4A sectional championship at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium. The Cats eventually scored on the drive to tally their second and final touchdown and earn a 17-9 win and the sectional title.

Herald Sports Editor

JASPER — Jasper quarterback Nolan Ahrens couldn’t care less that a fake punt attempt pretty much detonated in his team’s face in the fourth quarter Friday, gifting Evansville Reitz the ball near midfield in a one-possession game.

Nope, Ahrens thinks in terms of percentages, thank you very much.

“We were 1-for-2,” he said of Jasper’s success rate converting fake punts, a grin covering his face. “Fifty percent.”

Through the lens of Wildcat players and coaches, they didn’t need to be perfect when they sampled the occasional audacious play-calling against nemesis Reitz in the Class 4A sectional championship. They merely needed to be fearless enough to try and accurate enough to transform at least some of the risks into rewards.

Jasper wasn’t perfect, but did uncover a hefty payout when a fake punt in the second quarter paved the way to a touchdown and catapulted the Wildcats to an 11-point lead. Later, with a 17-9 victory and a sectional championship in hand, the Wildcats could relish the hindsight of being bold. Big games call for the occasional big gamble.

“If we have to take some risks to do it, we’re going to take risks to do it,” Jasper coach Tony Ahrens said. “All the time, things like that don’t work. But it gets down to our kids and executing a play like that, and you can’t say enough about how our kids played throughout the course of this game.”

Control swiveled Jasper’s way late in the first half, with the Cats up 7-3 and facing fourth-and-10 from Reitz’s 35-yard line.

Jasper lined up for a punt. But that’s never a sure thing when your punter and your quarterback are one in the same — especially a signal-caller like Nolan Ahrens, who tossed his 21st touchdown pass of the season earlier in the game to set the program’s single-season record.

“Of course we knew it (was coming). You watch film, and one out of  about every four punts they were faking it,” Reitz coach Andy Hape said. “They outplayed us on that play, for sure.”

To boot, Ahrens is a rugby-style punter, creating the illusion that he could also take off with the ball upon receiving the snap. This time, he advanced a few small steps, froze for a brief-yet-eternal moment and took inventory of the play unfurling downfield.

“I didn’t want to force anything,” he said. “But (Austin) Alles is always wide open. He makes himself wide open on every play, and he’s just a great receiver, and he grabbed the ball and got the first down.

“We’re playing to win. We’re not playing not to lose. We definitely took that risk, and we converted on it.”

The play was a wheel route where Alles cut across the field and the two wide receivers on the right side run crossing routes. For once on the night, the trick play allowed finally allowed Alles — the standout tight end pinched by heavy coverage most of the night — some open space. He leapt to complete the 29-yard hookup that moved the ball to the 6-yard line, then Tate Blessinger jammed home one of Jasper’s two touchdowns on the night.

“Big, big play,” Tony Ahrens said.

It’s one among the options cooked up by Nick Eckert, the Cats’ defensive coordinator who also calls the shots on special teams. And when Jasper toyed with a few gambles that flopped, the Cats repelled Reitz by more conventional means. After the botched fake punt in the fourth quarter, the Panthers drove to Jasper’s 31-yard line but winged four straight incompletions. On Jasper’s initial drive of the night, the Cats opted for endzone or bust at Reitz’s 5-yard line, gaining just 1 of the 2 yards necessary for a first down.

Jasper could have taken the points with a chip-shot field goal. That gamble fizzled. But there was always another chance for a risk to pay rich rewards.

“We trust our kids. And they know, too,” Tony Ahrens said. “We didn’t get that first score, but we’re telling our kids in that situation that we’re going to do things to win the game. If taking a chance is necessary then we’re going to do that, and they know that and they bought into that, they believed that and gave us a sectional championship.”

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