SAM FRICK: Lakeland at West Noble could deliver game of the year in NECC

West Noble quarterback Drew Yates prepares to take a snap against Garrett during June 14’s OPS 7v7 event at Carroll High School. (Photo by Ayden Moore)

We’re heading into the final stretch of the regular season, with three regular season games left and the sectional draw less than two weeks away. From here on out, it is championship week every week in the state of Indiana.

Many eyes will be on Homestead-Carroll and Luers-Dwenger this week, and it’s completely understandable why. However, up northwest in Ligonier on Charger Hill will see the biggest game of the season for both the undefeated West Noble Chargers and the upstart Lakeland Lakers (5-1).

For the visiting Lakers, they have responded to almost every challenge that has been presented to them. Despite that 18-9 loss to Garrett in Week 4, Lakeland’s maturity has showcased a resilient team that held off an athletic Angola team on the road 38-37 on week later and a 43-point domination of Central Noble on Homecoming night.

Coming into the season, all the hype was on Lakeland’s sophomore quarterback sensation Brayden Holbrook. Through six weeks, he has thrown for 1,072 yards with a 63.4 percent completion rate to go with eight touchdowns and three INTs. He is the only quarterback in the NECC so far that has thrown for over 1,000 yards.

Lakeland is also starting to showcase a lot of promise with the rest of its 2026 class, particularly running back Sean Conley. In his first season in the varsity spotlight, he has ran 89 times for 1,008 yards (11.3 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns. Conley leads the NECC in rushing yards and only trails West Noble’s Seth Pruitt in rushing touchdowns.

Holbrook’s targets in the passing game showcase a lot of youth, speed, and athleticism. Five Lakeland receivers have caught 10 or more passes and at least 127 yards. Senior Cole Frost and sophomore Keyan Arroyo have combined for 663 yards and four touchdowns on 31 catches.

The Lakers will be going up against the undefeated West Noble Chargers on Friday, who are one conference win away from an outright Big School Division title. Coach Ryan O’Shea’s squad lost a close defensive battle in the teams’ last meeting when West Noble’s defense stopped Lakeland on a two-point conversion with just seconds left to pick up a 7-6 road win.

Coming in to the fall, O’Shea and his team knew that to accomplish one of their goals, they would have to win a critical road game against the NECC’s projected No. 1 team in the preseason rankings.

“West Noble has become a good rivalry for us both,” said O’Shea. “I have a lot of respect for Coach (Monte) Mawhorter. Our players know each other very well and have been keeping an eye on what each other have been doing all year. Our kids have worked so hard to be able to play in big-time games; you have to earn that right to play in championship atmospheres, and both teams have definitely done that.”

Last week, despite trialing 15-14 at the half, West Noble scored 20 unanswered points on its way to a 34-15 win at Garrett. Coach Mawhorter credited Coach Chris DePew and his Garrett squad for limiting their offense by dominating time of possession.

“Garrett had a great game plan and executed it very well,” said Mawhorter. “The best way to keep us from scoring is to not allow us to have the ball. Starting the second half with a quick score, stopping Garrett and scoring again allowed us to put the game away. It was a big road win for the program and I hope (further) steps toward winning in the postseason.”

The Pistol Spread scheme of the Chargers has been led by senior quarterback Drew Yates, who has thrown for 536 yards with a 73.6 percent completion percentage, recording nine touchdowns, two INT’s and rushing for 628 yards with eight more touchdowns.

Junior running back Seth Pruitt is having another dominant season, rushing 135 times for 973 yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns. One of the key things that doesn’t get mentioned enough is a dominant offensive line that has helped this offense. Much like Lakeland, the West Noble offensive attack is an offense with many weapons to get the ball to, including the sophomore duo of Xavier Yates and McKale Bottles.

Much like the last meeting, however, it will come to the ability to make plays and the defenses getting stops.

“In my view, the separator for us will be our passing game, that’s a dynamic that can level the playing field for us and gives us a chance to win every game,” said O’Shea on this week’s matchup. “On defense, we will obviously have to contain Pruitt and Yates. I’m not sure if anyone can stop them totally, but if we can make them earn every yard, you increase the chance for mistakes.”

Defensively for West Noble, expect Nolan Parks to be a major x-factor in the run defense as it will have to contain Conley and the rest of that backfield that also has Carson Mickem. For Lakeland’s offensive line that is led by seniors Bo Kerns, Cam Riegling, and Chuck Schackow, they’ll be tasked to block against an aggressive West Noble interior defensive line that has recorded eight sacks this season.

Coach Mawhorter understands that Homecoming week presents unique challenges that will add more pressure to what is already an incredibly important game. However, they’re going to treat this game in a typical business-like manner.

“This game is no different in what we need to do to win,” said Mawhorte. “We must hold our own at the line of scrimmage. We have to be able to tackle in the open field (against) their talented athletes and limit our turnovers and penalties. I don’t feel we have played a complete game yet.”

On paper, the math is simple. For West Noble, all it needs to do is win and it is division champions for the first time since 2019. If Lakeland manages to win this game, it will still have to win one more game next week vs Fairfield. Keep in mind that Fairfield is at Garrett this week.

It’s not uncommon for a divisional champion to win it with a loss loss, as 2021 saw Fairfield winning its division outright despite losing a game.

In an series that dates way back to 1968, Lakeland holds a 36-24 lead. It’s been 18 years since the Chargers last beat Lakeland in consecutive meetings, with the Lakers having won 16 of the last 19 matchups.

When these two teams take the field on Friday at Charger Hill, the atmosphere will be electric between two powerhouse Class 3A programs looking to prepare for a difficult postseason journey, with both residing in the same sectional. If you want an excellent preview for what’s to come in sectionals, then this is a great opportunity.

“I know our kids will be excited, and it will be a great atmosphere on top of that hill,” said O’Shea. (We) can’t wait.”

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