What almost was for '77 WildcatsNovember 17, 2020
By GREG ECKERLE
A powerhouse 1977 Jasper Wildcat football team fell one measly foot short of an undefeated state championship.
As heart-wrenching as that double overtime 21-14 loss to Plymouth was, that Jasper squad should be long remembered for an accomplishment still unmatched in the school’s impressive gridiron history. It completed a back-to-back Wildcat run as state runner-up in Indiana’s Class AA state tournament.
Entering the previous year, 1976, Jasper was coming off a 6-4 record. Mike Loftus, quarterback for the 1976 and 1977 teams, recalled, “We were predicted to go 5 and 5 in 1976.” But the Cats started reeling off wins, including a midseason 20-19 last-minute squeaker at Evansville Central after being down 19-0. The winning points were a touchdown pass from Loftus to Steve Braun, followed by a Bret Horney extra point. Coach Jerry Brewer thought that victory was a turning point, giving the team confidence and momentum. They beat Castle, 14-13, when defensive end Mick Birge stopped their two-point conversion attempt, securing Jasper’s first undefeated regular season. They were the first Wildcat team to earn a spot in the IHSAA playoffs, which began in 1973. They beat Castle again in the tourney, then Indianapolis Roncalli, before losing to Mishawaka Marian in the state final.
With most starters returning, Jasper began the 1977 campaign ranked number one, and held onto it by storming to another undefeated regular season. There were two close calls, 7-6 over Tell City and 27-22 at Evansville Memorial. Jasper’s only score against Tell City was a 71-yard run by senior halfback Tony Ahrens. Earlier, Tell City’s point-after-touchdown try was blocked by Jasper’s Dean Miller. “Our defense was winning those games,” said Ahrens, who later coached at Jasper for 34 seasons. “Tell City had those big, physical farm kids. But we were very tough defensively, giving our offense a lot of chances.”
“If we had lost that game, it probably would have tanked our season,” said Steve Dills, an assistant coach. “Tell City successfully ran the old single wing, because nobody played it but them. And everybody was up for us after the previous year.”
Jasper fell behind Evansville Memorial and its star quarterback, Don Mattingly, 19-0, in the third quarter. Dills remembered walking to the locker room at halftime with fellow assistant coach Dave Edds. “We’re getting beat up, it’s bad. He said, ‘How do you want to do this?’ I didn’t think screaming was going to help. He agreed, saying let’s talk basic adjustments and leave them alone. So we did, but that really wasn’t the style of Edds or me. But the kids came out on fire. After we won, some fans are asking Edds and me, ‘What kind of pep talk did you give at halftime, I would’ve liked to been in there.’ Actually, I think it was the quietest halftime I ever sat in. It was just soul searching by the players, they decided to turn it around.”
Jasper forged ahead after sophomore Dave Block blocked a Memorial punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown, followed later by an Ahrens TD run. Memorial had one last possession and would have stolen the victory except for a key defensive move by Jasper coaches. Wide receiver Steve Braun, probably the fastest Wildcat besides Ahrens, was inserted into the defensive backfield as protection against a long gain. Memorial then completed a “flea-flicker” pass and sprung a ball carrier with a wide-open path to the end zone, except the speedy Braun caught him from behind. Two plays later, linebacker Mark Kunkel sacked Mattingly for the win.
The Wildcats opened the tournament by blasting Clarksville, 55-14, as Ahrens ran for 260 yards and Ed Erny for 179. They then beat a rugged Mooresville team in the regional, 21-12. Loftus, who severely sprained his ankle on the first offensive play, thinks that game took a toll on Jasper. “They were maybe the toughest team we played. They were so physical. I think they’re the reason we lost to Plymouth.”
Beating Mooresville set up a showdown for the state title with undefeated Plymouth, ranked number two all year behind Jasper. Ironically, Dills, who had played football at Plymouth, was now coaching against his former coaches and some brothers of his teammates. “The townspeople called me a traitor,” said Dills with a laugh, “and my mom and dad were getting hassled at home. They take their football pretty seriously up there, too. I did strap my Plymouth letter jacket on the blocking sled and let our players all hit a big P.”
But Plymouth had one weapon that Jasper couldn’t match — Pete Buchanan, an All-American at both tailback and linebacker. At 6’3” and 225 pounds, he was at least 20 pounds heavier than any Jasper defender. Just a year later, as a freshman fullback at Notre Dame, Buchanan scored a touchdown in the Irish’s Cotton Bowl victory over Houston. “I’ve never seen a high school kid run like him,” said Edds. “You could tackle him for a four-yard gain and by the time he finished falling forward, he’d gained six or seven yards. He was impossible to stop for no gain.”
Jasper scored first in the state final, on a 28-yard pass from Loftus to Mike Meyer. Buchanan, who carried 45 times for 205 yards and was also Plymouth’s leading tackler, answered with a one-yard TD plunge in the second quarter. Regulation play ended in that 7-7 tie, but some Jasper people will long remember two frustrating plays before the overtimes that could have meant a Wildcat state championship. With three minutes left, a Plymouth punt bounced near the Jasper 30-yard line. A Plymouth player batted the ball, but the ball technically was still alive and Jasper returner Danny Fuhs picked it up.
At some point an official incorrectly blew the ball dead. Fuhs remembered, “Coach Brewer said, ‘Take it in!’ So I did.” Fuhs, with Kunkel running alongside as a blocker, ran into the end zone. But since the official had blown the play dead, the TD didn’t count. “I didn’t hear a whistle until we were well beyond everybody,” said Kunkel. “We should have scored. Fuhs wouldn’t have been tackled.” The official later admitted to Brewer that he had blown the call. On another play earlier, a Jasper touchdown run was called back because a Wildcat was penalized for moving before the snap. “The films showed he didn’t move at all,” said Fuhs.
Loftus lamented another play in regulation, when he overthrew a wide open Fuhs. “I overthrew him by two steps. That would have been six points. That still haunts me. I couldn’t believe I missed him. As soon as I let it go, I was like, oh no, that’s too hard.” But Loftus did connect with Meyer in the first overtime on a pass he hadn’t practiced before to give Jasper a 14-7 lead. Loftus hadn’t practiced the entire week because he was treating his sprained ankle. Before the overtime, Loftus said Brewer told him to run the play they’d been working on in practice. Loftus reminded Brewer he hadn’t practiced that week, so Brewer told him to run a triangle, fake the handoff to Ahrens and hit Meyer dragging in the back of the end zone. “That was the first time I ran that play in my life,” laughed Loftus, “and we scored! I could never do that again.”
On Plymouth’s possession in the first overtime, the state championship would have been Jasper’s if they could have stopped Buchanan short of the end zone on a fourth-and-two play. “Brad Bawel hit Buchanan first and I hit him shortly after that,” said Kunkel. “He barely made it. He wasn’t a foot across the line. It was enough. We were that close.”
Buchanan, now living in Florida, said in a phone interview, “I said at the time that I prayed. All I was hoping was that nobody got through to hit me in the backfield, because we had lots of blockers in the hole. It was definitely close.” Buchanan scored again in the second overtime while Jasper was held scoreless. After the game, Plymouth coach Bill Nixon said he honestly thought there wasn’t a number one team, that the two teams “were as even as you can get.”
“Jasper was a great team,” said Buchanan. “We saw Tony Ahrens and the yardage he was gaining. He was impressive. It was definitely our toughest game, physically. Two really evenly matched teams. It just came down to a couple plays. I remember listening to the replay on the radio and hearing Mark Kunkel’s name being called a lot (for making tackles).”
Dills said he still thinks about the Plymouth game “about every week.” “We had a pretty complete team, and very rarely do small schools get complete teams. The guys were smart. Offensive linemen had to learn every position. They knew how to play angles and figure out schemes to get everybody blocked.” Fuhs said, “Our offensive guards were fast, we’d pull them with others for power sweeps, that’s where we made our living.”
Edds, who coached football for 15 years and had a son, A.J., play in the NFL, remembered the Jasper players as being great competitors and having a lot of confidence. “Tony Ahrens ran as hard as any high school kid I’ve been around. I tried to coach my running backs the way that Tony played. That’s the highest compliment I could ever give him. Mike Loftus was a great passer. Danny Fuhs was the epitome of a Jasper player, who did not back away from work. And Joe Rohleder was one of the hardest working coaches I’ve been around, he was always very well prepared and did a great job with the defense.”
As hard as the team worked, including some three-a-day practices in the preseason, they also knew how to have fun. Loftus recalled that the more the team won, the more that coaches joined in the fun. He once saw Brewer tap dancing in the weight room. Edds told of the gimmicks Dills used to motivate players. One was peeling stickers off Chiquita bananas to give to players who went “bananas” on the kickoff team. Another Dills special in 1977 was to award a little toy bulldozer to the lineman that blocked the best in that week’s game. “It was unbelievable the effort they would give to win that bulldozer,” said Edds. And winners took pride in displaying them. Even years later, when Dills visited center Ted Seger in his corporate office, he spied one of the bulldozers in Seger’s display case. Dills also recalled the fun they had with the late Bret Horney’s superstition of wearing a jersey that “looked like it had been shredded in battle, it was so torn and tattered, but he said he needed it that way, and Brewer let him do it.”
Besides having two Hall of Fame coaches in Brewer and Rohleder, the team was loaded with talent. Ahrens and Kunkel made both the UPI and AP All-State teams, while Fuhs, Loftus, Horney, Seger, Braun and Meyer also made AP All -State. Ten seniors played college football on scholarships.
The first thing both Fuhs and Kunkel said about Ahrens as a ball carrier was that he didn’t run out of bounds. “If you were going to tackle him, you were going to pay for it, he’d flat run you over,” said Fuhs. Ahrens, noting he had done farm and construction work for years, said, “Getting hit didn’t really bother me that much. I enjoyed the physical style of running. It can take the wind out of your opponent.” Ahrens described Kunkel as “a stud, real strong, big, smart, and fast.” Fuhs felt that “Kunkel was an animal playing football. He’d knock down multiple guys blocking for me on punt returns.”
Coach Rohleder recalled once holding a hand dummy for Dills as Dills was teaching Kunkel the finer points of blocking. “Kunkel hit me and I did a somersault backwards,” said Rohleder with a laugh. “I told Dills, ‘We’re not doing that again.’ But Mark was one of the most natural linebackers I’ve ever coached.”
Loftus marveled at the team’s firepower. “We had a six three receiver in Braun that could fly. If I threw the ball to Meyer in his zip code he caught it. We had the best running back in the state in Ahrens. I had the greatest offensive line a quarterback could ask for. We loved to have fun, and we turned that into winning. It was definitely the best time of my life.”
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