WATERLOO – When it was all said and done on Friday night, DeKalb head coach Pete Kempf stood near the 20 yard line with his head pointed toward the ground. Not in disappointment, but probably in every other emotion you could imagine from exhilaration to relief. When his wife neared him, his honest smile helped mask the tears forming in his eyes.
The Barons had just beaten state ranked Angola 41-39 on opening night of the 2019 season. And anyone who has been around DeKalb will tell you, they needed one like that. After all the program has been through in the past few years, they may have just as well deserved one like that.
“I just think this team, these seniors have meant a lot to me,” Kempf said. “We’ve been through a lot, it is a rough and tumble group. It is not easy. These young men, they set the tone, they built the culture like three years when we had to start rebuilding.”
“As sophomores, they just started working and working and working and to see everything we’ve built and where they are now, it has been an unbelievable journey and I am just proud to be a part of it,” he added.
Coming into the game, Angola hadn’t lost to DeKalb since 2015 and the Hornets had won 19 straight regular season games dating back to 2016.
Then DeKalb struck first and fast with Landon Miller punching in a two yard touchdown to give the Barons a 6-0 lead. It was the last time they would lead until the fourth. Instead, Angola’s offense came out swinging when Tucker Hasselman threw the ball laterally to Ryan Brandt, who then chucked it down the field to a wide open Antonio Luevanos for a 60 yard score. Hasselman added a short run for a touchdown later and the Hornets took the lead and looked to be well in control.
“We have three new offensive lineman and you kind of saw that right off the bat with some silly mistakes,” Kempf said, noting Angola’s Kyle Trick causing havoc defensively.
DeKalb fought back after getting down 20-6 in the second quarter. First, Miller scored on a 52 yard run. Then, after Angola answered with a passing touchdown of their own, DeKalb quarterback Evan Eshbach found Easton Rhoades from five yards out to make it a 27-20 game. The last DeKalb score of the half was set up by an impressive Eshbach bomb to Kai Zacharias earlier in the drive.
For Eshbach, though in his first year playing for DeKalb, the win still held a special place of importance.
“I feel great right now because it was a whole team effort,” Eshbach said. “It took everyone to win this game. We laid it all on the line. We have a lot of things to fix but I think we can do that and be pretty dangerous.”
The third quarter was a defensive showcase with neither team giving much of an inch. It was a strong defensive stand for DeKalb, who lost two defensive tackles earlier in the week forcing some key personnel changes. Among those changes were moving Corey Price to safety, forcing him to play both ways part of the night and other guys like Blake Lude stepping up defensively. Jacob Leming, who hadn’t played defensive line all summer, was forced to step in and learn the entire nose position in three days.
“We have a bunch of unselfish players. We did what we had to do,” Kempf said. “We played four or five corners, four or five safeties, four or five inside backers, we played eight or nine d-lineman. Everyone was part of the cog and everyone had a job.”
Eshbach came out firing in the fourth quarter with a pair of touchdown passes. He found Rhoades from six yards out to tie the game, then the Baron defense stepped in. With 9:49 left to play in the 27-27 ball game, Hasselman’s fourth down pass was knocked away by Caleb Nixon giving the Barons plenty of time to drive 71 yards down the field. Angola bailed DeKalb out a little with a pass interference play a minute into the drive and then with 7:23 to play, DeKalb took the lead for the first time since 6-0.
That play came on tight end Evan Snider getting away from the Angola defense and getting the pass from Eshbach from 26 yards out. The crowd at DeKalb went crazy. It was starting to feel like that moment that all of the Barons so desperately wanted. Through trials and tribulations on and off the field to the failed referendum this year that would have upgraded their facilities, emotion has been high with Baron football and their fourth quarter pushes had everyone, rightfully, on the edge of their seats if they were still sitting.
“I think we have a lot of chemistry, we can be very dangerous in the air and on the run,” Eshbach said. “I think we have a special group. We never had a doubt, big time teams make big time plays and I think that is what we did tonight multiple times.”
Angola then silenced them as Angola does so well. This time, as it did a lot on Friday night, came on the legs of Luevanos, who ran in a 15 yard touchdown, but a missed extra point kept the game tied.
Again DeKalb wasn’t going to be denied. Not on this night in front of the thousands of fans that made the game a spectacle. Miller picked up a huge first down with 3:08 to play, getting the ball down to the three yard line. Miller then punched it in on second down from the one yard line with 25.2 seconds to play; it was his third rushing touchdown of the night. Eshbach punched in the two point conversion, eliciting the “I believe that we just won” chant from the DeKalb student section.
And everyone thought they had won. Except Luevanos, who exploded off a Hasselman pass for a 62 yard score with 12.2 seconds left. Yet the DeKalb defense, which had played close to flawlessly in the second half despite two late touchdowns, answered. Angola looked to tie the game of a sweep play to Luevanos with plenty of lead blocking but DeKalb stopped the conversion.
“You knew 1 was going to get the ball. They did some NorthWood action: set up one side, motion back to the other side and we were all over it. Super proud of that defense standing up when they needed to,” Kempf said.
Miller may have been the star of the night for DeKalb in the Outside the Huddle Game of the Week, catching two passes for 78 yards and running for 118 yards on 16 attempts with three touchdowns. Eshbach threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-27 passing in his DeKalb debut.
“When Evan came in you see that football I.Q. that he has learned. He brings that to the offense and that allows us to do some things on offense we haven’t been able to do in a few years,” Kempf said.
For Angola, Luevanos was the versatile star, running for 145 yards and a touchdown and receiving for 159 yards and two more scores. Hasselman threw for 129 yards and ran for 88.
“We beat a heck of a ball team tonight. Angola is extremely well coached, they are a quality football team,” Kempf said. “That culture starts from the ground up.”