GAS CITY – Coach Jason Doerffler would probably like to pump the breaks on the headline to this column.
Though just one game away now, a state finals appearance is still a tough task for the Leo Lions as they prepare to host NorthWood next Friday night.
That said, the performance that Leo had on Friday against Mississinewa seemed like all of the right herbs and spices for a team ready to contend on the state level in a 41-7 rout.
The offense was fast, it was diverse and it was able to run past (or through) the unbeaten Indians from the opening possession.
And while Leo’s offense continues to rightfully get high praise, the defense was perhaps more stellar. It’s not to say that Mississinewa was not able to move the ball; they were. Indians quarterback Nolan Quaderer threw some hard passes to connect with receivers and moved, at times, effectively in and out of the pocket. But in the moments that mattered, Leo was just better and made massive stops to derail any positive Mississinewa momentum.
I won’t go as far as to call Leo’s defensive schemes and intensity a clinic on Friday, but considering the fact that the Indians were held under 30 points just twice this season – 16 and 23, both in wins – you have to give major kudos to the way the Lions flustered Mississinewa on its home field.
The defense started on the right foot. Up a touchdown with 10:56 left in the second quarter, Leo saw the Indians moving in for a score of their own. But on third down just 20 yards away from the end zone, Brock Schott tossed his opposition out of the way for another sack on what has been a standout defensive season for the junior. That led to a missed Indians field goal.
After Kaden Hurst turned the corner on a reverse and blazed his way to the end zone with untouchable speed to make it 14-0 Leo, the defense again made a play to stop Mississinewa from answering. This time, it was Charlie Schlib who chased down a scrambling Quaderer and took him down by the ankle on 2nd-and-two to stop momentum. On the next play, Schott put heavy pressure on that led to Quaderer to fumble his pass attempt and give the ball back to Leo.
The other big ingredient then showed off again was the playmaking of the Lions’ diverse offense. After postseason break-out star De’arious Carter juked and shook his way for a 33-yard run, Kylar Decker went over the top to Schott for 25 yards down to the 1-yard line, where Anthony Nicklow finished off Leo’s third score in three drives and sent the Indians into the locker room with their backs severely against the wall.
The halftime break is where a lot of things could happen and change. For Leo to win its first regional title since 2011 and third overall, it would need to find a way to put the foot on the gas in the second half. That is what the recipe for a true state contender calls for – a team that isn’t willing to just coast, a team that can call it 0-0 at the break and just repeat what it did in the first half no matter how much they may be up.
One Carter 92-yard house call later and it was clear Friday that Leo wasn’t in Gas City to coast.
You’ve never heard a stadium in less stereo than it was on the opening kickoff of the second half. The Mississinewa stands were in hushed silence while the Leo cheering section was deafening as Carter weaved his way through Indian players to return the second-half kickoff for a touchdown.
That could have been ‘all she wrote,’ but that’s not what Leo did; frankly that’s just not what Leo has done on its nine-game win streak that has seen it score 40 or more points seven times. With the pressure mounting for Mississinewa on 4th and 1 from its own 44, Andrew Monday had no way through a defensive line that stuffed him behind the line of scrimmage with 10:15 left in the third that took away yet another Indian opportunity.
Schott, Hurst, Carter. Rinse and repeat. Leo punched in another score with 7:51 left to play in the third that started the running clock on the regional championship.
Since its last loss on Sept. 8, Leo has consistently answered the bell. If someone strikes, the Lions strike back and strike harder. More impressive is that Leo has consistently stopped letting the opposition have many offensive opportunities, minus the shootout with East Noble. Not even an unbeaten Indians team, who just beat Kokomo last week, had any way to sneak by the Lions.
If you have a team that can be fast and diverse on offense and be hard-hitting on defense, you have a state contender. And if that team also can continue to get better in ways both expected and surprising as the weeks go by, well then maybe you have something more.
The Lions now are a win away from their first-ever trip to the state championship, but face a foe that won’t be easy to get by. But neither was East Noble and neither was Mississinewa. The Lions found the right recipe to knock off those teams. Friday was a pretty overpowering example of that.
While we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, Leo may have something good cooking for Thanksgiving weekend
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