Wildcats 'lay a good foundation for years to come'

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Jasper's Blake Mann runs the ball during a football game this year at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium in Jasper. Jasper defeated Mount Vernon 29-14.

By JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

JASPER — The Jasper football team’s season came to an end after falling to the Evansville Central Bears 27-16 on Friday, but Wildcats coach Tony Lewis chose to reflect on the success the team enjoyed toward the end of the regular season, which included a five-game win streak and the final-ever Big Eight Conference title. They finished the year 6-4.

“The fact that this senior class was the first senior class to win an outright Big Eight championship since 2015 is a big accomplishment,” he said. “We wanted to progress further into the tournament, but I thought it was a successful year in terms of winning the Big Eight Conference, putting together a winning streak and playing our best football at the end of the year.”

The way the season ended stands in stark contrast to the way things started off for the Wildcats. The start of the season was a new beginning for almost everyone, as the Jasper football program was handed off from Tony Ahrens, who led the team for 16 seasons, to the newcomer in Lewis. He had watched copious amounts of film on the Wildcats’ previous season, but knew it would take time and on-the-field work to really see the talents he had, and figure out where the players could be the most impactful for the team.

“I had an idea of who was coming back and who wasn’t, but that was based on what went on last year,” Lewis said. “It took us three to four games to get people in positions where we felt like we could be the most successful.”

Lewis initially planned on installing a spread-type of offense when he first envisioned how Jasper would operate on the field. However, it became pretty clear after the Wildcats’ first outing, a 35-20 loss to Evansville Memorial on Aug. 23, that they needed to change up their scheme if they were going to compete. Lewis started dialing back the spread and investing in more triple-option schemes that he believed fit the talents of the players to a T.

“We felt like our running backs were downhill, hit-the-hole-quickly type of running backs, and we felt like it would benefit our offensive line going to option football,” he said. “We made the change the night after the Memorial game.”

The Wildcats found their footing immediately. They dropped their next game to neighboring Southridge, 21-17, on Aug. 30, but the Wildcats were much more competitive, and even led the game by a field goal at halftime before the Raiders came back in the second half. Lewis thinks the definitive shift came during the Wildcats’ conference opener Sept. 6 at Boonville. He thought the boys adopted a different attitude against the Pioneers, one which led them to play with more confidence than their first two games.

“Our intensity level was much better in the third game,” Lewis said. “Our kids were kind of feeling things out in the first two games. In the third game, we came out and said, ‘We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to not be on our heels defensively or offensively,’ and it was a great coming-out party against Boonville.”

The Wildcats rolled to a 35-0 win against the Pioneers, and their only other loss was to Heritage Hills, 17-14, on Sept. 13. The rest of the Big Eight was in for a handful against them. Jasper scored more than 35 points three times in its next four wins, and held its opponents to less than 20 points each game.

The Wildcats were bolstered by great individual efforts like senior running back Elliot Hopf’s 232-yard, three-touchdown outing Sept. 20 at Vincennes Lincoln, or junior quarterback Blake Mann’s four touchdowns in a 35-28 win in the Oct. 25 first-round sectional against Northview. Lewis credits the players for believing in the system and taking ownership of their locker room as the defining factors that led Jasper to the highest of highs during the fall.

“Midway through the year, our seniors started to speak up more,” he said. “We’ve always had a little bit of an issue of wanting our kids to speak more and take on more of a leadership role. Our seniors started to do that more, hitting the middle stride of the season.”

Lewis and the Wildcats wish they could still be out there practicing for one more game, but he views this season as a success on multiple levels. They only lost to teams that will be playing in sectional championship games on Friday, and together, Lewis and the players have started a new era which should usher in many more highlights for the Jasper football program in the near future.

“We wanted to lay a good foundation for years to come,” Lewis said. “Our seniors did a good job of laying the foundation for future classes in terms of how we’re going to compete, how we’re going to lift (and) how we’re going to practice.”




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