Wildcats recharged for title collision

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Spencer Otto (20) and Courtland Betz skied in celebration after Betz intercepted an Evansville Central pass during Friday night’s Class 4A sectional semifinal skirmish at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium in Jasper. Jasper leashed Evansville Central’s high-powered offense to pocket at 28-7 win and earn a spot in next Friday’s sectional championship at home versus Evansville Reitz. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — The faces appeared possessed as Jasper offensive line coach Joe Shelton spoke with the team following Friday night’s Class 4A sectional semifinal. Hungry, crazed, and surely wanting more.

Shelton knew what would appease the appetite.

“It’s trophy time,” he said to the masses donning black.

An uproar. A final huddle. A fittingly buoyant culmination to the Wildcats’ raucous rendering at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium.

Two weeks earlier, the last time the Wildcats stood in the locker room after a game, the scene remained hushed, muddled by an enthusiasm deficiency even after the Cats convincingly smothered Mount Vernon. At the time, there just didn’t appear to be any urgency with the group. No fervent desire to make things happen.

Friday’s atmosphere offered a polar portrait — unabated hoots and hollers, palpable passion and a recognition from head coach Tony Ahrens that made the sixth-ranked Wildcats’ 28-7 dismissal of Evansville Central even sweeter.

“Those kids in there,” Ahrens said as the volume erupted simultaneously within the locker room, “they’re peaking at the right time.”

The Wildcats (10-1) will tangle with Evansville Reitz (8-3) in the championship next Friday in Jasper. The Panthers, who knocked off Silver Creek 49-15 in the semifinals, terminated Jasper’s season in last year’s sectional championship with a 31-30 victory on a field goal in the final 10 seconds.

From Friday’s opening possessions, the Cats’ efforts seemed strictly centered upon earning that shot at redemption.

When Central running back Avion Sullivan took a handoff up the middle on the game’s first play, Jasper defensive end Austin Alles negated the rusher’s momentum with a collision at the line of scrimmage, as a few other Wildcat defenders joined to engulf the sturdy 6-foot back.

A sign of things to come.

Sullivan, who had amassed 2,049 yards rushing entering Friday’s tussle, toted the ball for just 15 yards on nine carries. Altogether, the Bears tallied 27 yards on the ground.

What’s more, Central didn’t advance the ball past its own 40-yard line until it started a drive on the 42 off an interception some 3 1⁄2 minutes into the second quarter. Spencer Otto, Moises Valenciano and Cole Kreilein each sacked Central quarterback Austin Fuchs in the opening half, when the Bears managed just four first downs (one because of a Jasper penalty), punted three times and turned the ball over on downs three times.

“We really came out and we were the aggressors,” Alles said.

“We just had to get stops early and get pumped up and get them looking flat. Just bring a bunch of energy. We knew if we got ahead, we could keep them down.”

And the Cats did.

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Teammates offered slaps of support to Tate Blessinger after the Jasper sophomore scored one of his two touchdowns.

Though they recorded just one play resulting in more than 20 yards — a quick post route to Alles (four catches, 62 yards), who trudged forward for a gain of 21 yards — the Wildcats persistently hammered their way down field. Guided by junior running back Ben Moore (29 carries, 106 yards), who accepted the bulk of Jasper’s 52 handoffs, the Cats collared 22 first downs to Central’s 10. Jasper registered five drives of nine plays or more, including two 13-play scoring drives in the second half that silenced any possible whisper of a Bears’ comeback.

After Moore’s first-quarter touchdown and Tate Blessinger’s second-quarter score awarded the hosts a 14-0 halftime lead, the Cats received the third-quarter kickoff and devoured yardage and clock with each methodical snap. Moore, Alles and junior Ian Songer (10 rushes, 65 yards) each carried the ball at least once on the drive, while quarterback Nolan Ahrens (10-of-16 for 107 yards) connected on two passes to Cody Jacob before Blessinger bolted up the middle from 4 yards away to make it 21-0.

The Cats’ first two drives of the second half consumed precisely 12 minutes. Altogether, the Bears had possession for just 51⁄2 of the final 24 minutes, giving sparse opportunity to a Central offense that had averaged 47 points per game and totaled more than 50 points in five different games.

“They’re huge,” Blessinger said of the two second-half touchdown drives. “Just sticking it to them at the beginning (of the second half) shuts them down for the rest of the game. Just kills them.”
No matter the situation, Jasper seemed to have the edge.

Well-timed hard counts by Nolan Ahrens coaxed four encroachment penalties from the Bears, three of which generated Jasper first downs.

When it appeared as if the Cats would punt for the first time midway through the fourth quarter, they instead executed a direct snap to Alles, who handed the ball off to Moore. The junior then rolled out before slinging an 18-yard first-down completion to cornerback-turned-receiver Courtland Betz, who already had an interception under his belt from the second quarter.

And while the complete performance brought a couple mild concerns — namely the 187 yards passing for Fuchs and a few deep tosses by the senior that came inches from translating to big gains — the Wildcats’ resolve shone through.

“One of the best things about this game was (despite) all the adversity that occurred during the game, our kids just played through it and they played with a lot of energy through it,” Tony Ahrens said. “That’s the kind of thing you have to do to win games like this and to move on and get an opportunity now to play in the sectional final.”

And now comes the pinnacle test for the Wildcats, who haven’t secured a sectional championship since 2008. With the prospect of next Friday, the tenor after this one remained understandably feverish.

“It’s obviously nice to get another chance at (Reitz),” Alles said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing and I think we’ll be fine.”

The excitement appeared difficult to contain, even for someone who typically suppresses it best.

When asked how he felt about a championship rematch with Reitz, Tony Ahrens paused a second before simply smiling. He then nodded his head and a few moments later, the grin faded and it was back to business.

“We have to get out and simply prepare hard. You’ve got to enjoy this win but the next win gives you the opportunity to win a sectional,” Ahrens said.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to cover everything we can and get ready to play.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com