As they prepare to clash, head coaches Nick Hart of Gibson Southern and John Hurley of Evansville Memorial agree on what it’ll take to win Friday’s 7 p.m. 3A Sectional 32 football championship game on Jack Jewell Memorial Field.
“When two really good teams play, two teams that are really close, it always comes down to turnovers. The team that makes the fewest mistakes and makes plays will win,” said Hart, whose Titans take an 11-0 record into their bid to avenge last year’s 29-20 sectional-opening loss on The Jewell.
“We’ve got to win the turnover battle — create turnovers, take advantage of them and keep our offense on the field,” said Hurley, whose Tigers will travel with a 10-1 record, their lone loss by 35-7 to 4A sectional finalist Evansville Central, whose Bears got much the better of Gibson Southern in the August 11 preseason scrimmage.
Like the Titans’ 39-28 sectional semifinal win at Big Eight Conference champion Vincennes Lincoln, this will be a battle of champions. While Gibson Southern won the Pocket Athletic Conference title with a third straight unbeaten regular season, Memorial shared the city and Southern Indiana Athletic Conference crowns with Central and Reitz, where the Tigers won 41-21 September 22,
Like at Vincennes Lincoln, whose Alices are ranked No. 10 in 3A in The Associaterd Press’ final poll and No. 11 in the Indiana Football Coaches Association’s last vote, this will be another ratings game. The Titans finished the regular season No. 1 according to The AP and No. 2 to West Lafayette according to the IFCA, the Tigers No. 3 by the IFCA and No. 4 by AP.
Friday’s winner will advance to next weekend’s one-game regional vs. the Sectional 31 victor between Lawrenceburg (10-1), No. 5 in both polls; and North Harrison (11-0), No. 6 by The AP and No. 9 by the IFCA. The Titans, if victorious this evening, would host North Harrison or travel to Lawrenceburg, the 2016 state runnerup. Memorial, 3A state runnerup in 2008 and 2009, Hurtley’s first two seasons, and winners of 11 sectional titles to Gibson Southern’s three, would host either Lawrenceburg or North Harrison.
One difference from last postseason’s matchup: Gibson Southern quarterback Isaac Sellers, whose junior campaign ended due to a collarbone fracture in the regular-season-ending PAC championship win over Southridge, will play. So will classmate and linebacker Trace Matsel, whose 2016 season ended when he suffered a concussion vs. Southridge. “We won’t use their injuries as an excuse for losing last year, but their presence makes it different,” said Hart, whose Titans have won 67 times around eight losses in his six seasons.
“Sellers commands their offense very efficiently,” said Hurley.
Hart said offensive guard Jess Robinson, 330-pound senior who sat out the second half at Vincennes due to a lower leg sprain, is expected to play Friday. “Jacob Cox (245-pound senior) did a wonderful job in replacing Jess,” said Hart, who added, “That’s why we try to give our backups a lot of playing time — so they get experience. Jacob has played a lot at times.”
Befitting their experience, each team’s quarterback has put up big numbers. Isaac Sellers, in his second season as successor to brother Nick, has completed 141 of 210 passes (67.1 percent) for 2,338 yards and 31 touchdowns vs. two interceptions. Including his 188 rushing yards in Vincennes, he has rushed 519 yards and nine touchdowns in 76 carries, a 6.9 average. Thus 2,857 yards of total offense. Memorial junior Michael Lindauer, in his third year as a starter, has completed 140 of 242 passes (57.9 percent) for 1,990 yards and 24 TDs vs. five interceptions. Altogether the 6-foot-3, 185-pound lefthander has accounted for 2,050 yards of offense.
“Lindauer’s probably the best quarterback we will have faced,” said Hart. “He and Vincennes’ Graham Toole are both good, but they’re different. When Lindauer takes off with the ball, he’s looking to see if he can make a long throw downfield.”
Hurley, whose 10 seasons have brought 69 wins around 53 losses against mostly a 4A schedule, said Lindauer “has gotten a lot of experience and it shows. He runs our offense very efficiently.”
Many of Lindauer’s handoffs go to 6-3, 185-poubnd senior Kenyon Ervin, whose has rushed 209 times for 1,389 yards (6.6 average) and 16 touchdowns with nine games over 100 yards. “Kenyon has great vision. And while he doesn’t have great size, he has good power,” said Hurley, to which Hart adds: “Not only does Ervin have speed and strength, he sees the whole field, he has good balance and breaks tackles.”
The Titans counter with 185-pound senior Dylan Stefanich, who despite missing a game-and-a-half due to an early-season ankle injury has netted 1,057 yards and 25 touchdowns in 139 carries, a 7.6 average including seven games over 100. “A physical kid who runs hard,” said Hurley.
Each team presents multiple receiving threats. Memorial junior Branson Combs, a 6-3, 210-pounder, has caught 48 passes for 785 yards and 10 touchdowns. Six-three, 175-pound senior Max Spradlin, in nine games, has caught 25 for 396 yards and 3 TDs. Sophomore Logan Lively, a 150-pounder, has made 16 catches for 238 yards and 3 TDs. Senior Luke Montgomery (160) has 15 catches for 152 yards and 4 TDs, Ervin 11 for 110 yards and 3 TDs, junior Miguel Turnbaugh 10 for 82 yards and one TD.
Gibson Southern’s 6-7, 235-pound senior and Ball State recruit Wes Obermeier has made 52 catches for 801 yards and 12 TDs, 6-3 junior Dawson Witte 30 for 470 and six, 6-2 senior Nic Maurer 28 for 495 and seven, sophomore Ben Butler 18 for 315 and four. The 5-9, 170-pound Butler also has rushed 51 times for 455 yards and seven TDs, including two games over 100 yards when Stefanich was idled.
“Obermeier and Witte are solid on the outside and have nice speed, and Maurer is a good slot guy,” said Hurley.
Each team starts a Division I recruit, Memorial’s offensive line, and sometimes the defense, includes 6-7, 325-pound Eastern Kentucky-bound Drew Hart. “That he is going to a program like Eastern Kentucky says a lot,” said Nick Hart, who noted that 6-5, 235-pound sophomore Austin Jones is “another very good one. Their offensive and defensive lines are very good.”
Drew Hart missed four early-season games due to an ankle injury, Jones replaced him at offensive tackle and has stayed there, Drew Hart moving to guard upon returning. “Austin stepped in and played so well that we kept him in the lineup when Drew came back. “Drew is strong and versatile,” said Hurtley, who echoed Nick Hart’s comment that each team has strong line play both offensively and defensively.
Senior Jake Barnett (220), who centers to Lindauer is flanked by Hart and 320-pound senior Alex Deigman at guard. Junior Trevor Falkenstein (215) joins Jones at tackle. Branson Combs, Spradlin (175), Turnbaugh and Lively form the receiving core. Defensively, Branson Combs’ sophomore brother Brock (190) joins seniors Alex Lichlyter (215), Ryan Ohlsen (275) and Keion McGuire (220) up front, with juniors Max Goodwin (200), Devin Merimee (206) and Branson Combs (210) at linebacker. Turnbaugh (175), fellow junior Darius Johnson (175), and sophomores Evan Janiga (190) and Finn McCool (160) form the secondary. Junior Matt Clark kicks and Lindauer punts.
For the Titans, Robinson will again join junior Noah Singer (240) in flanking senior center Grant Holzmeyer (220). Seniors Ryan Sensmeier (270) and Zach Nurrenbern (225) open at tackle. Defensively the senior trio of Kalob Stuessel (300), Devon Montgomery (280) and Devin Mills (230) form the line that fronts the linebacker quartet of Matsel (200), fellow senior Landon Mayer (195) and juniors Garrett Martin (190) and Lucas Plasse (185). Junior Andrew Smith (169), who in Vincennes made two interceptions and returned the first 52 yards for the game-breaking fourth-quarter toucvhdown, will again join senior Bailey Neufelder (175) at cornerback. Senior Tyler Goedde (185) and sophomore Mitchell Spindler (170) play safety. Spindler punts, while junior kicker Bryce Williams is coming off a sectional semifinal in which he hit a 38-yard field goal and five extra-point kicks.
Matsel leads Gibson Southern in tackles with 83, including 55 solos. Martin’s 64 tackles include 40 sols. Goedde’s 63 include 46 solos, Mills’ 58 stops include 39 solos. Goodwin leads Memorial with 94 stops, including 47 solos, while Brock Combs’ 89 hits include a team-high 54 solos. Merimee’s numbers include 40 solos and 87 total, Lichlyter’s 37 and 69 according to Max Preps.
Nick Hart noted that Singer “played in one defensive package at Vincennes and could do that again.” And, “After trying to kick off away from Poole up there, we’ll kick deeper a little more. Our kickoff team has played well, but we saw a couple things on that we’ve worked to correct them. We also have to tackle better, and we certainly can’t have 175 yards in penalties again.”
Nick Hart announced award winners for the week capped by the semifinal win. Smith earned the Hammer Award as the team’s best player. Singer earned the Hit Stick for best play, Sensmeier the Pancake Award for a block that flattered a foe. Plasse, long snapper on punts, extra-points and Williams’ field goal, gained the special teams honor. Sophomore and backup receiver Adam May is Special Teams Player of the Week.