ANGOLA – Two years ago, the Fairfield Falcons boarded their buses after a 70-point blowout at the hands of host Angola and headed back to Elkhart County, thoroughly outclassed in all facets of the game.
On Friday, many of those same players that vividly remember that game in 2018 headed home with a completely different set of emotions.
Fairfield exorcised some demons, took control of the NECC Big School Division and kept its undefeated record intact with a 29-17 win over the Hornets.
Coach Matt Thacker remembers that 70-0 loss well. It was his first season at the helm of the Falcons. He had one senior and even had to cancel a scheduled game due to a lack of healthy players.
“In my own mind, I knew that eventually it was going to happen,” said Thacker when asked what he thought on the ride home following that defeat two years ago. “I knew we were going to get to a spot where we could get things going because the kids were there and they wanted to win.”
Thacker took over a program attempting to find itself. Following a pair of one-win seasons, Bob Miller was done with the Falcons, opening the door for Thacker.
In Year 1, Fairfield didn’t score until Week 4 and was shut out five times, never scoring more than eight points in a game.
But things turned around relatively quickly. Last year, Fairfield won six games, yet still fell by 32 to the Hornets.
But Friday was different.
Angola coach Andy Thomas warned anyone who would listen that the Fairfield triple option attack was incredibly well run and tough to contain. Sure enough, it was the option that turned out to be the difference.
The numbers weren’t necessarily eye-popping, with the Falcons (5-0) amassing 282 rushing yards on the night. But the frustratingly methodical way that Fairfield went about it decided the game.
Thacker’s team did not punt until late in the fourth quarter, scoring on every single drive it did not turn the ball over on. A pair of fumbles in the first half in Angola territory (one of which was returned for a touchdown by Kyle Brandt) kept the game close, but every time Fairfield needed to make a play, it did.
On a 3rd-and-9 in the third quarter with Angola within six, Fairfield quarterback Cory Lantz was able to complete a pass for a first down. While the drive ended in an INT, it helped burn more time off the clock.
Later in the fourth on 4th-and-2, Carson Abramson took the handoff on a dive to score and vault the Falcons back up to a two-score lead.
Thacker’s team never really gouged the Angola defense for big yards, but the Hornets had trouble containing the dive and inside runs and could not seal the edge with much consistency. The result? Long, sustained drives that ate up clock and limited Angola’s opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Hornets (3-1) were only able to manage nine first touchdowns and scored just a single offensive touchdown. When Angola began to get desperate in the fourth quarter, Fairfield was able to pressure quarterback Tucker Hasselman and the offense into some miscues, halting any shot at a rally.
Abramson was a sophomore two years ago when Fairfield was destroyed by Angola, so he was one of many who found Friday to be sweet redemption, particularly since he scored a pair of touchdowns and rushed for over 130 yards.
“We learned from getting our teeth kicked in and stayed humble,” said Abramson when asked what has changed under Thacker’s tutelage. “Coach has kept us positive and taught us to keep fighting and not give up.”
Thacker admits it isn’t pretty at times, most of the time even. This isn’t a high-flying offense, nor is it a suffocating defense. But it has a roster full of kids who are hungry and desire the opportunity to play for a winner.
For awhile, Fairfield wasn’t a winner, but that has changed.
“We are a hard-working, blue-collar community in the southeast corner of Elkhart County, (the triple option) just fits,” said Thacker. “We go out and punch people in the mouth. We turned the ball over (against Angola) and had some penalties, but daggone it our effort was out of this world.
“I can’t be more happy and proud of these guys. We knew we were starting fresh (two years ago) and now look at us. I love every single one of them.”