TALE OF TWO SEASONS: WILDKAT FOOTBALL ENSURES ROCKY ROAD TO THE STATE FINALS

Kokomo head coach Brett Colby talks football with WIOU Sports Director Chris Lowry and other members of the media. (SJ photo/Dean Hockney)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – This has not been a typical season for Kokomo High School football and head coach Brett Colby. The Wildkats program is accustomed to winning, but at one point in the campaign, they were a mediocre 2-3. Entering the playoffs, they were barely over .500 at 5-4. And yet, four weeks later, they are headed to the programs first-ever IHSAA state championship football game.

The season got off to a rocky start – in fact, the Kats did not even find the end zone in week one’s 24-2 loss to Hamilton Southeastern (3-7) in the debut of the new Walter Cross Field synthetic turf field. Week two had Kokomo defeat a Class 3A Hamilton Heights (3-8) team 19-7 on the road in lackluster fashion. In week three, the Kats traveled to Marion (7-4) and beat a good Giants squad 17-14. But back-to-back losses, a 26-10 loss at McCutcheon (7-4) and a 48-28 defeat against eventual North Central Conference champion Lafayette Jefferson (10-1), had the Kats face-to-face with a potential losing season.

“I was so disappointed and disgusted with this team,” said Colby of the start to the season. “We knew we had it in us and just couldn’t get it together.”

Colby said a multitude of factors played into the slow start for Kokomo.

“Injuries had a big part of it,” said Colby. “And we had some adverse things happening in the locker room. Internal stuff we had to take care of. It just drained this team, but they never gave up. The core was there. Of the 36 quarters we played in the regular season, we had our starters together for six. That is insane to think about and people don’t understand that. We just couldn’t get it to work.”

Colby pointed to an injury to senior Jack Perkins and the move of two-way standout Stevens Edwards as one reason the season started slow.

“It was a gut-check to this team when Steven moved,” said Colby. Fortunately for Kokomo, Stevens returned to Kokomo shortly after the season started. “And it pumped the life into us when he came back. That is when we started our run.”

With Edwards back in the lineup, the ship righted with a pair of home blowout wins – 56-7 against Anderson (2-8) and 48-7 against Logansport (5-5). Despite a 24-7 loss at Harrison (6-4) in a game that was not going to affect the NCC standings, Kokomo closed the regular season with a solid 44-8 home win against Indianapolis Arsenal Tech (3-7).

Coaches will say they want a team to peak at tournament time – and that is exactly what Kokomo has done. They avenged losses to Harrison (13-8) and McCutcheon (37-7) to win its third consecutive sectional title; but in the process, they lost Edwards to a shoulder injury. With Edwards on the sideline, the Kats showed the teams toughness and desire with a near-miraculous 33-21 comeback against Zionsville to win the regional. And last Friday night, the 2017 Wildkats sealed its destiny with a 21-14 semi-state championship victory.

“It is amazing what we have been able to do for this city,” said Colby, looking back on the season and the last three years of Wildkat football. “A lot of kids have set the foundation for where we are at now. Now, this team can finish the job.”

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KOKOMO WILDKATS WIN FOOTBALL SEMI-STATE, NEXT STOP IS THE CLASS 5A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – One more game. That has been the theme for the Kokomo Wildkats, especially after a disappointing 2-3 start to the 2017 season.

Last Friday night in a pounding rain storm, the Kats earned the right to play one final game after winning the programs first semi-state championship – and with it, a date in the state finals. In the IHSAA North Semi-State held at Walter Cross Field, No. 13 Kokomo pulled-off its fourth consecutive upset as they knocked off No. 7 Michigan City 21-14. Kokomo won with the typical cast of standouts and one unlikely hero who became a Wildkat football legend on one single catch.

“Surreal. Unreal. I am speechless,” said Kokomo head coach Brett Colby.

“This is what we have talked about since we were little kids,” added senior Jack Perkins. “We really have united as a team the last few weeks. We have battled, and we have one more week – that is all that matters.”

One week after finding itself down 21-0 in the first quarter of the regional finals, Kokomo lit the scoreboard on the opening drive of the semi-state. After a pair of runs by Jack Perkins, Kyle Wade found Noah Hurlock for a 25-yard pass to the Kats 47. Kokomo then methodically moved the ball 53 yards on the ground in eight plays with Perkins capping the drive on a five-yard touchdown over the right guard.

“They were very physical up front and wanted to win as bad as we did,” Perkins said of Michigan City. “We just came out on top this week.”

Michigan City struck quickly as Michael McCullough hit a wide-open Zennon Wilhelm for a 71-yard score three plays after the Kats score. After a series of punts, the first big break of the game came when Kohl Beard forced a fumble and Brody Smith fell on the loose pigskin at the MC 32-yard line. Four plays later, Wade hit Perkins for a 13-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead after Max Waltemath’s extra point. The catch by Perkins was his first receiving score of the year.

On Michigan City’s next possession, Smith grabbed his second turnover of the game – this time an interception at the five-yard line. Wade then went airborne, hitting Perkins for a 40-yard strike and Luke Cameron for 19 yards to move the ball to the MC 25.

That is when Kokomo’s newest gridiron hero was born. Having never caught a football in a game, Javias Gray, a 265-pound lineman/tight end, popped off the line and found himself uncovered at the seven. Wade saw the junior screaming for the ball and delivered a strike, which Gray caught with his back to the end zone, turned and scampered to pay dirt for an improbable 25-yard touchdown. Gray’s first reception gave Kokomo a 21-7 lead late in the first half.

“I told Kyle in the huddle to give me a chance; I was wide open every play,” said an all-smiles Gray. “He said okay. So, I rolled out and was open. He actually yelled, “Javias,” and he threw it. I yelled, “I got it! I got it! I got it!,” and I just ran. This is a dream; this is what I always wanted; this was the first time he has thrown it to me since I have been a tight end and I made it a completion!”

Kokomo stopped Michigan City on the first series of the second half only to fumble the ball at the three-yard line as rain erupted at Cross Field. Three plays later, McCullough dove into the end zone to trim the Kats lead to 21-14 with 6:34 left in the third stanza.

The game then turned into a defensive battle as a driving rain and wind storm changed the playing conditions. After a Kokomo turnover, the Wolves started a drive that moved 50 yards – until Noah Cameron snagged his second interception in two weeks, stalling the Michigan City drive midway through the fourth quarter. Kokomo went five and out on its next possession, but Wade launched a 50-yard punt that rolled to the four-yard line.

With the rain still falling, Michigan City fumbled on its second play after the punt. Javias Gray, having the game of his life, came up with his second huge play, falling on the loose football. While Kokomo did not score on the ensuing series – Wade’s dive for the end zone came less than an inch from the goal line – they did eat up precious minutes before turning the ball over on downs with 3:47 remaining and the ball one inch from the end zone.

The Wolves, with its back to the door, launched a potential game-winning drive with eight consecutive rushes to the Kokomo 48, forcing a Kats timeout with 1:02 remaining. McCullough then connected on a pass to Keyshawn McGill, who flipped the ball to Kameron Muhammad for a 13-yard gain. McCullough followed with three straight pass incompletions, the third a drop by McGill for a sure first down.

Facing fourth-and 10 at the Kokomo 35, both teams called timeouts before McCullough scrambled and fired a pass to Wilhelm that sailed off the fingers of a receiver, resulting in an outburst of joy from Kokomo players, coaches and fans who endured the weather. Wade took a knee out of the victory formation which led to the first-ever presentation of the semi-state championship name plate to a Kokomo football team.

Wade, who has never missed a start in his four-year career as the Wildkats signal-caller, finished 9-14-1 for 194 yards and a touchdown; he also rushed for 41 yards. Perkins had four catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, plus 46 yards and a score on the ground. Hurlock had 35 yards rushing and 65 receiving. Smith led the defense with 11 tackles and two recovered turnovers while Hurlock had nine tackles, including one for a loss.

Next up for Kokomo (9-4) is a date at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. against No. 3 Columbus East (13-1). The Olympians shocked the state when they crushed No. 1 Indianapolis Cathedral 42-13 in the South Semi-State contest. While the Kats are making its first trip to the state finals, Columbus East won state championships in 1979 (3A) and 2013 (4A) and are the defending Class 5A state runners-up (lost to Westfield 16-13).

“We have to stay focused,” said Gray of the state championship game. “I am ready to play it right now.”

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FINAL FOUR BOUND: KOKOMO FOOTBALL STUNS ZIONSVILLE WITH 33-POINT OUTBURST TO CLAIM REGIONAL TITLE

SJ photo by Randy Messner

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

ZIONSVILLE, Ind. – High school football games are scheduled for 48 minutes, not 12. Last Friday night, the Zionsville Eagles learned that lesson the hard way. In the IHSAA Class 5A Regional championship game, No. 13 Kokomo started the game as cold as the subfreezing game time temperature before turning up the heat and stunning No. 11 Zionsville 33-21 to advance to its second Final Four in three years.

“These kids find a way,” said Kokomo head coach Brett Colby after his Wildkats scored the final 33 points of the game. “They just keep coming back and coming back; there is a lot of heart out there. It is a lot of fun to be a part of this program.”

For Kokomo, the Elite Eight game could not have started much worse. The Eagles were forced to punt on its first possession, but Luke Cameron fumbled the punt back to Zionsville – four plays later Nick Nelson rushed for a one-yard touchdown. The Eagles then recovered an onside kick but stalled. Kokomo took possession only to see Jack Perkins fumble on the second play. Nelson picked up the loose ball and returned it 40-yards to pay dirt for a 14-0 Zionsville lead. On the Kats second possession, Noah Hurlock fumbled the ball away and 10 plays later Nelson scored his third touchdown of the first quarter for a 21-0 lead with 1:24 left in the stanza. After another Wildkat defensive stand, Kokomo senior quarterback Kyle Wade tossed an interception to close out the first quarter.

After 12 minutes, the scoreboard read 21-0 Zionsville and all momentum was on the Eagles side of the field. With four Kokomo turnovers, the situation was bleak at best for the Kats.

“To be down 21-0; we couldn’t have done anything worse in that first quarter than what we did,” said Colby. “To have the heart to come back is huge.”

Kokomo looked at the start of the second quarter as a new beginning. They forced a punt on Zionsville’s first possession and drove the field 85-yards in 15 plays. More importantly, every player that had issues in the first quarter became a standout the rest of the game. Wade completed passes and gained yards on the ground. Luke Cameron ran for a pair of first downs and locked down on defense. Hurlock ran for positive yards and led the defensive effort. And Perkins had a pair of scores, including capping the initial effort with a one-yard touchdown run to put the Kats on the board.

On the Eagles next possession, Noah Cameron picked off a pass from Cole Wiseman at the five-yard line and returned it to the 35. Kokomo then put together a 65-yard drive that was capped with Perkins second score of the day – a four-yard run over the right guard – to trim the lead to 21-14 with 51 second left in the half. After Zionsville took a pair of knees to run off the clock, momentum had clearly swung across the field to the Wildkats sideline.

“To go down and score on that drive with a minute to go, and then they took a knee – our kids were pumped,” exclaimed Colby. “(Zionsville) wanted out of the half, and we used that against them on the way off the field. I am just so proud of everybody.”

Both teams punted on their first possessions of the second half. On the Kats second possession, Wade had runs of 16 and 10 yards, Donte Smoot had a four-yard run and Wade closed the drive with a four-yard score to tie the game at 21 and complete an improbable comeback. Kokomo’s defense stood tall on Zionsville’s next possession, forcing a punt. Ten plays later, Kokomo was in the end zone again as Wade found Hurlock on a six-yard touchdown pass. The Eagles blocked the extra point, but Kokomo led 27-21 with 7:58 left in the game.

Kokomo sealed the game late in the stanza after the defense forced Zionsville to punt from its 10-yard line – a punt that went just two yards after strong pressure from the line. Hurlock punched the ball across the end zone four plays later for a 33-21 lead with 2:07 remaining. The Eagles mounted a final drive that stalled at the Kokomo nine-yard line with 25 second left, which allowed the Kats to end the game in the victory formation.

“We bought another week, and that is what you want to do at this point of the season,” said Colby. “It has been a lot of fun – but everyone that is still playing next week is in that same mode.”

Playing without leading receiver Steven Edwards, who injured his collarbone in the second championship game, Kokomo needed a player to step up – and that player was Noah Cameron. The junior caught four passes for 62 yards and had 37 yards rushing and one touchdown.

“I am so happy to be able to play next week,” said Cameron. “I told the guys after we were down 21-0 not to flinch. And we didn’t flinch. Our team just kept beating them until the game was over.”

Cameron also was strong on the defensive side of the ball with five tackles and an interception.

“Every week I am ready – it doesn’t matter who you put in front of me,” he added.

Wade finished 9-13-1 for 94 yards and one touchdown through the air. He added a career-high 123 yards rushing and a score. Perkins had 43 yards rushing and two touchdowns while also catching three passes. Kokomo’s offense outgained the Eagles 348-243 after gaining just 49 yards in the first quarter. The Kats scored on five of six red zone appearances.

On defense, Hurlock had 13 tackles (three for a loss) and a sack. Luke Cameron forced a fumble, Kohl Beard recovered a fumble, Jabrian Adams had two tackles for a loss and Kaijon East added a sack. The Kats defense played extremely well, allowing only 4 of 12 third down and 0 for 2 successful fourth down attempts by Zionsville.

Kokomo (8-4) will host the semi-state contest at Walter Cross Field against No. 7 Michigan City (9-3). The Wolves defeated Concord 21-7 in the regional to advance to its first-ever Final Four. Game time is set for 8 p.m. due to Michigan City traveling from a different time zone.

“I am so happy to bring this game to Kokomo (this Friday). I want everyone to come out and pack the stands. Let’s get an overflow crowd and cheer on our kids,” said Colby. “We are going to have a battle against a great, athletic football team from up north.”

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