This is the first in a sporadic series about experiencing a game night in one of northeast Indiana’s towns outside of Fort Wayne.
Late last fall at the start of high school basketball season, we dipped our toe into a series on experiencing a game night environment complete with visits to small towns, food suggestions and overall impressions of what a night is like covering a variety of high school teams.
Then, we stopped. It was a planned series that got lost in the shuffle. So now, with high school football season in full swing, we have decided to bring it back.
So as Week 3 took shape, we headed to Bluffton, one of our very favorite places to visit anyway. This trip, like all will be in this series, was only partially about the game and all about the experience.
However you access State Road 1, the trip to Bluffton is usually a pretty quick one and leads through another small town favorite, Ossian. From the northern side of Fort Wayne, it makes sense to take I-469 west toward State Road 1. From the south, you can just jump on Bluffton Road and take it all the way in to Bluffton.
Our trip on Friday wasn’t so simple and it won’t be until the construction on State Road 1 is completed. It did, however, make the trip more scenic down smaller roads taking I-469 to Winchester and Comer Roads before taking US-224 over to State Road 1 heading north. In this day and age, we all have map apps on our phones, so we will spare you the specifics of your turns.
What we will share is that either this alternate route, or the main route, are both fun ways to go. There is something to be said about the smaller backroads, windows down and music up when going to small towns for high school sporting events. Also, the usual trek (when open) is great. Ossian is another great little town to travel to or through depending on your spare time. The trip to Bluffton takes 40 minutes to an hour depending on where you leave from Fort Wayne, but it is also a pretty easy drive.
Bluffton starts before you get to the downtown area, but for an outsider the real start of Bluffton is the bridge at Kehoe Park that leads into the true downtown area. Kehoe Park is a neat little spot with great views and picture-worthy places. On this Friday night, there was a performance of Romeo and Juliet scheduled, showing the versatility of the little park on the river.
Downtown Bluffton is busier than most main roads in a small downtown because that road is still very much State Road 1. It also keeps downtown lively with people walking the streets and a decent array of little stores, including a delicious (in look, they were closed) Sweet Obsessions Bake Shoppe.
Like with most small towns, we suggest just getting to town early on game night and walking around a little bit. The annual Bluffton Street Fair will be held September 17-21, one of the best fairs you’ll find in northeast Indiana. If you miss it this year, it is annual so check it out in 2020. Bluffton will also be opening Parlor Plaza on September 27 with an event from 3-7 p.m. that will add another feature to downtown.
Obviously, another great part of Bluffton outside of the town is Oubache State Park at 4930 IN-201 that has special events throughout the year as well as camping, fishing and more.
We got stiff armed in our first attempt to eat. Upon parking and starting our walk around downtown Bluffton, the pleasant aroma of Billy Ann’s Supper Pub took hold. Unfortunately, this is a 21 and over establishment as we learned when we reached the front door so with one of us under age, we had to shift focus.
That focus however led us further down State Road 1 to a quaint little BBQ joint called Yergy’s. With about a dozen tables, Yergy’s is small but spacious enough that you don’t feel like you are sitting on top of fellow eaters. We got there just in time because by the time we left about 6 p.m., the place was getting packed with regulars, Bluffton supporters and even some fans of visiting South Adams.
The side of potato salad was absolutely the right call. The thinly sliced pickles and eggs in it are flavorful but leave plenty of room for the bountiful chunks of potato. The baked beans were also a hit.
Of course, when you are going to a BBQ joint, you can’t go wrong by trying the pulled pork. The amazing smokey flavor in the meat immediately separated Yergy’s. They have a chart for their sauces on the table and they are as advertised: flavors that you can’t find anywhere else. The tangy sauce has a mild sweetness with a late kick of spice that is appreciated and not overwhelming. The Yergy’s classic is tomato based and sweet like grape jelly.
If you are going to Bluffton, for any reason, Yergy’s has to be on your list of stops to make. Our intern proclaimed that it may be the best BBQ he has ever had, so Yergy’s welcomed him to Midwest BBQ the right way. We’ll be back for sure.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Bluffton has a tremendous football facility from top to bottom. The brick buildings that house the concession stand and both teams’ locker rooms balance out a great gated entrance. Once inside, the home grandstand is booming and the press box, something that most people don’t care about, is large with plenty of space to move inside, outside and on top of. Trust us, it matters. The only drawback is with the placement of the stadium lights, the actual stands get lost in the dark a little; it makes it a little weird.
While it took a while for the Bluffton faithful to file in, they did show up and formed a nice hometown crowd. Unfortunately, as you will read, they were silenced pretty early so there was no real chance to see what the fans or student section had to offer in terms of impacting a game. The pregame was full of activities, including recognizing flag and peewee football teams, which is always a cool moment for those kids who get to walk out onto the track and then form a high-five tunnel on the field. The cheer team performed pregame and while we weren’t too pumped up by the musical selection in the pregame, it was only right that the Tigers took the field to Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” a phrase that also adorns a banner as you enter the field.
Another perk of small town football, for us anyway, was that each coach (Brent Kunkel of Bluffton and Grant Moser of South Adams) took the time to greet us down on the field and thank us for coming out. As journalists, there is something to be said about coaches who have appreciation for their coverage.
The halftime performance of the Bengal Brigade, Bluffton’s band, was strong for such a small group. In small towns, you aren’t going to get the elaborate and deep performances of a Carroll or North Side, but the Bengal Brigade did a good job of playing loud and exciting music that made it seem like there was plenty more of them than there were.
And of course, there are concessions. What is Friday night football without good on-site food? Bluffton has a solid menu and two big windows that facilitate getting food out quickly. We tried the hot dog with cheese, it’s that one high school sport constant. Special kudos to the teens and preteens who were helping take orders and, at times, running the concession stand. Very mature young men who took charge and made the halftime swarm on the concession area smooth.
FROM THE EYE OF THE INTERN
Danny D. Cruff is a college student from Vinton, Virginia. A former football and basketball player, he will be contributing to Outside the Huddle through the coming months. Friday night’s game between South Adams and Bluffton was his first experience with Indiana high school athletics.
“The transition and comparison from Virginia high school football to Indiana high school football is a culture shock. The players are a lot taller and more in football shape here. Also, the pace of the game was much quicker. Plenty more passing and stronger arms, the receivers have better hands and the O-line hold their blocks longer. The defense is much more explosive off the snap but they don’t hit as hard as they do in Virginia.”
BLUFFTON V. SOUTH ADAMS
The story of the game was pretty simple and can be found in our game story from the night: James Arnold’s aerial assault keeps South Adams perfect in 41-0 win over Bluffton
Bluffton was overwhelmed from the get-go by the Starfires and that did, in all honesty, keep the game from ever having that ‘Friday Night Lights’ feel. The Bluffton fans stayed until the bitter end, which included a running clock the entire second half because of Indiana’s new mercy rule. I will say though that the Bluffton student section stayed moderately engaged to try and balance out a boisterous South Adams ‘galaxy.’
While South Adams is the focus of any game story, Bluffton fought. After starting quarterback Hayden Nern left injured, backup Kain Thornton (who usually plays receiver) stepped in and busted his butt to make plays with his quickness.
On the field, both teams played hard-nosed football with Arnold to Aidan Wanner being a consistent theme. One major note is the sportsmanship that was in play more often that not. Sure, there were some overzealous moments of trash talk, but in sport you have to expect that. Still, through multiple Bluffton player injuries to the mutual respect of the coaches, it was refreshing to see such good sportsmanship. Moser and Kunkel are friends and it shows in how they coach their teams to play against one another.
The best part to us was this: one player tackles an opposing player, then helps them up off the turf. Bluffton and South Adams have no reason to dislike each other, but that doesn’t always equal respect. These teams were respectful of each other, even in such a lopsided game and that was something special in Bluffton; it doesn’t happen enough.
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