KENDALLVILLE – It was only a matter of time until someone brought their very best to face off against East Noble; Knights coach Luke Amstutz told his team as much in their postgame huddle.
Perk of that conversation: he did it while holding the Class 4A Sectional 19 championship trophy. Amstutz, in his eighth season as the the Knights’ head coach, has been with the program longer, starting as an assistant.
“I have been working to do this for a long time,” Amstutz said, noting the program’s 17 straight winning seasons. “We’ve had great teams, great talent and great players. This year, it all kind of fell together and these kids weren’t going to be denied.”
“We came out here and grinded all year, it means everything to bring it back for the first time in 16 years. This team is trusting each other; it is not just one person. The d-line, the DB’s, the linebackers make this all happen,” East Noble senior Bailey Parker added. “We are prepared for a fight and this is great for us getting into a fight going into next week.”
East Noble earned that piece of hardware, its first since 2003, by downing Leo 14-7. The game saw the Knights score a season low in points (23.3 points lower than their season average) and also their third closest game of the season and the single closest game since Week 2 of the season. What would East Noble do when tested? It was a big question that many didn’t think would get answered this week. To Leo’s credit, it was asked. And East Noble answered loudly.
Their 7-0 advantage in the second half doesn’t sound like it was big, but the Knights made play after play, sometimes cleaning up their own mistakes in the process. They also relied heavily on their lines, breaking open opportunities for Parker on offense and stopping a heavy run on defense.
“I think the best half wasn’t our best half. We knew they were going to bring everything they had, they are a great team and we just had to shut down their run,” said East Noble lineman Leyth Al-Mohammedawi.
The first half was a story of Leo’s sustaining possession time. After more than eight minutes with the ball in the first quarter, the Lions turned a second quarter eight-and-a-half minute drive into a Mason Sheron 10-yard touchdown. Sheron took off left and then cut back right, reaching out to put the ball across the plane of the goal line.
Leo had to convert on fourth down twice during its opening drive before it was stalled by the East Noble defense.
It was the culmination of a two-purpose offensive game plan for Leo. Sheron, Peyton Wall and Dallen Wirtz all lined up in the backfield on most first half possessions, a formation that worked to great success earlier in the season for the Lions and similar to a formation that other teams used to success against East Noble. While Leo had success on the ground, it also helped limit East Noble’s time with the ball. The Knights ran just 14 first half plays.
“Its a mess in there. We had to make some shade adjustments up front a little bit and more than anything we just had to step up and start hitting,” Amstutz said of countering the Leo run. “Big players have to make big plays and we’ve done it all year.”
East Noble’s first possession came after ending that long first quarter Leo possession at its own five yard line on a big interception from Gage Ernsberger. After Bailey Parker fumbled the ball to the half yard line on the first Knight snap, the Knights were able to move the ball through the air, breaking out on a one-handed catch by Nicholas Munson for 15 yards. That drive ultimately stalled out at midfield.
The Knights’ ability to strike fast was helpful in the second half after Leo’s score. It took East Noble just two minutes and 19 seconds to respond after Munson’s 40-yard kickoff return gave East Noble great starting field position. Facing 4th and 7 from the Leo 21, Parker finished the Knights’ second drive with a touchdown pass to Hayden Jones, who went down near the goal line but reached out as long as his arm allowed for the contested game-tying touchdown.
The teams traded the ball at the start of the second half, with East Noble turning the ball over two straight possessions. The first time, DJ Allen put great pressure on the East Noble handoff, forcing a fumble recovered by Landen Livingston. The second Knights drive ended with a play that forced Jones to fumble the football after a reception near midfield. Yet Leo’s two possessions around those turnovers never turned out fruitful, a showcase of how much the Knights adjusted to Leo’s offense during the halftime break.
“They did respond and responded while still making some mistakes. And that’s the thing I love about this team is they are going to make some mistakes but they are going to keep their head up and they are going to battle,” Amstutz said. “Most of all, they are going to stay together and they are going to make big plays.”
Fighting back from those two turnovers, the Knights put the ball in the hands of Parker in the closing minutes of the third quarter. Parker first gained 19 yards on a quarterback keeper and then a short time later he sliced back through the line impressively for a 33-yard touchdown run that was the culmination of a 95-yard drive that lasted less than four minutes.
“I knew their outside linebackers were shooting out when they looked at me and read pass, so when we ran the draw play, I looked at them and realized my linemen made perfect blocks and the running back led me up in the hole,” Parker said. “I just read him, bounced off and sprinted, ran as hard as I could protecting that ball.”
Leo had chances to move the ball in the second half, but two drives were stalled by East Noble interceptions. Brooks Miller picked one off in the closing moments of the third quarter, but Jones’ interception with 3:32 left and Leo facing fourth down was the game clincher. East Noble’s line pushed back against a smaller Leo team both times, forcing Lion quarterback Jackson Barbour to rush his throws. The closing interception by Jones was a solid defensive play as he read the ball immediately out of Barbour’s hand and came up from behind to cut off the ball in the air.
Parker ended his night with 133 yards on the ground on 20 attempts and 125 passing yards on 10-of-16 passing. Jones hauled in four of those passes for 70 yards.
Sheron led Leo’s offense with 93 yards rushing while Wall added 91. The Lions ran the ball 49 times but only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, mostly due to East Noble’s enhanced second half defense. The Knights, now 12-0, will now travel to 11-1 Mississinewa next Friday in the regional round.
“It is absolutely wonderful and no words can describe it,” Al-Mohammedawi said of his emotion in bringing a sectional title to East Noble. “But it is just a stepping stone in what is hopefully something great to come and I just hope we can keep getting better and get after it.”