Wilkerson reflects on state finals finish

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Heritage Hills players huddle before Friday’s Class 3A state championship football game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Bishop Chatard defeated Heritage Hills, 34-3.


LINCOLN CITY — Heritage Hills coach Todd Wilkerson told his players before Friday’s Class 3A state championship game that he guaranteed the Patriots would win if they gave the best effort and the best focus they could give.

The Pats lost, 34-3, to Bishop Chatard at Lucas Oil Stadium, but that doesn’t change Wilkerson’s perception that his team won this year in the eyes of the coaches and in the eyes of the community.

“They see these kids as winners, as kids who gave everything they had,” Wilkerson said. “That’s all you can ask for.”

The Heritage Hills coach spoke of high expectations going into the year, and he said the Pats looked hungry after last season came to a close at the hands of Gibson Southern in the sectional semifinal. Wilkerson did have some question marks and concerns, though, going into this year.

He wondered about the defensive end position after Hertiage Hills lost Kyndell Carter and Dakoda Ebert to graduation, but the Pats turned to multiple people this year to play the position. Junior Jordan Mitchell, seniors Cody Frakes and Hunter Wetzel all stepped in, and Wilkerson thought they did an outstanding job.

Heritage Hills graduated punter Cade Jones, but Wilkerson thought junior Adam Guth stepped up. They also lost kicker Carson Leibering to graduation, but the coach had praise for sophomore twins Ethan and Adam Hill coming in for that position.

Wilkerson said it takes a lot of hard work to have back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, and the Pats ran away from every opponent except for one. On Sept. 13, they welcomed Jasper to the Jungle. Heritage Hills fumbled four times and lost two of them against the Wildcats, but relied on its ground game just as it did all year long.

Seniors Phoenix Rodgers and Gavin Vaal scored rushing touchdowns, and senior quarterback Cole Sigler, who sat out the previous week from a shoulder injury, kept on running the ball after the Pats’ recovered Jasper’s onside kick to hang on, 17-14.

“We got tested, but we passed the test, and we kept improving from then on,” Wilkerson said.

He elaborated that Heritage Hills got better with ball security, in the trenches and paying attention to detail. Wilkerson said the Pats had goals to win the Pocket Athletic Conference and to win a sectional championship, which he said were both difficult to achieve with Gibson Southern and Southridge standing in the way.

Victories against the Titans and Raiders in back-to-back weeks made for what he called two statement wins, as the Pats excelled both on offense and defense in those games. It was the first of two times this season they took care of Gibson Southern and Southridge in consecutive weeks, the means to the end differed this time.

The Pats were down, but not out against the Titans, and rallied late, hanging on after blocking a kick to win the game, 21-20. Their 27-7 win against Southridge the next week delivered them their first sectional championship since 2014.

Wilkerson said there would’ve been a whole different feel to the season if Heritage Hills did not block that kick against Gibson Southern and ended up losing the game. He said there are so many things that had to go right to make this season what it was, and even then, the Pats had to deal with adversity.

Senior Gavin Vaal tore his MCL in the playoff game against the Titans, and Vaal did not play until late in the state championship game against the Trojans. This meant senior Noah Mundy switched from free safety to Vaal’s position at strong safety, while Guth filled in for Mundy at free safety.

Wilkerson thought Mundy did an outstanding job in that spot, but added Vaal’s injury hurt the Pats from a depth standpoint as a runner and as the team’s third leading tackler behind Rodgers and fellow senior Jacob Wetzel. He touted Guth as a younger player who stepped up when need be, and said Guth’s interception in the Danville game made it hard for the Warriors to come back.

He would have been thrilled if he knew Heritage Hills held Bishop Chatard to 21 points through the first three quarters, given how dynamic the latter’s offense was. He wished his own offense could have scored off their trips to the red zone.

“Defensively, we didn’t play perfect, but we played well enough for most of the game,” he said.

The Pats opened up their passing game later on, and the Trojans intercepted a couple of passes. Wilkerson said he either could’ve played not to lose by a certain point total, or played to win.

“When I look in the mirror the next day, if we would’ve just tried to grind it out and use the whole fourth quarter and score a touchdown and make it 28-10, but there’s only a few minutes left, I’d have had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror saying that I gave us the best chance to win,” Wilkerson said.

He said people are still hurting about the loss, but he’s at peace with what Heritage Hills tried to do. This run reiterated to him how passionate the community is about football, and he learned what a great coaching staff the Pats have in getting them prepared every week.

“In a few weeks (Dec. 15), we’ll have our banquet, and we’re all going to reflect on this and realize that there were just some really awesome moments that we were able to experience together, and we’ll never forget it,” he said.

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