BY DEAN HOCKNEY
It was a night full of promises for three Howard County football teams. But in the end, Kokomo, Western and Northwestern all bid farewell to its senior classes after falling in sectional championship games. Despite a strong start, Kokomo fell to Fort Wayne Snider 52-28. Western was shocked by a blocked extra point kick in overtime as it fell to Bellmont 21-20, and Northwestern was overpowered by Tipton 41-22.
Class 5A Sectional 3
After what might have been the most exciting opening 18 minutes in Kokomo football history, the game came down to numbers – Fort Wayne Snider dressed 96 players (37 seniors and 41 juniors) while Kokomo (9-3) only dressed 68, including 22 seldom-used freshmen. The fact that Snider could substitute and have players only play on one side of the football compared to Kokomo having key players playing two-way showed itself as the Kats wore down in the second half.
“I was proud of our kids for the effort,” said Wildkat head coach Brett Colby. “They are a big, physical, dominating presence. We represented for a half, but we had a couple of big injuries in the fourth quarter that bit us – especially when our center got hurt. It was just a rough night but our kids fought hard all night – we didn’t quit and gave it a good shot. They just manned up on us a little big in the second half. It was just like it was the last two years.”
After Ft. Wayne returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, deflating a fired up home Kokomo crowd in the process, Armon Bridgeforth tied the game on a 25-yard run. It would be one of four first half touchdowns for the super senior as Kokomo matched Snider score for score in the first half.
The teams alternated the first six touchdowns for a 21-21 tie at the end of the first quarter. Bridgeforth’s fourth touchdown of the game gave the Kats its only lead of the game, 28-21, with 3:02 left in the first half. But five plays later John Nelson scored for Snider to tie the game, and a late Panther field goal sent the visitors to the halftime locker room with a 31-28 lead. That would be as close as the Kats would be the rest of the night as Snider dominated the second half against a tired Wildkat squad.
“We were able to get some things done offensively against these guys that we have never been able to do,” said Colby after Snider eliminated the Kats from the playoffs for the third straight year.
It was an offensive night as the two teams combined for 922 yards. Snider had 388 rushing yards and 164 through the air while the Kats ran for 342 and passed for another 28. Fort Wayne (8-4) was led by the 263-yard, five touchdown performance of Nelson. Brandon Phelps connected on 9 of 16 passes for 164-yards and a score.
Bridgeforth ran for 232 yards in the first half en route to a 259-yard game – seventh best in the history of Kokomo football. The electrifying runner also broke Braxton Shelton’s KHS record for career all-purpose yards with 4,825, and tied Braxton’s single-season touchdown mark with 34 as his name now tops the Kats record-book in several categories.
“They found out who Armon Bridgeforth was tonight,” said Colby. “He is a great kid. Our seniors were just really big for us this year.”
Class 3A Sectional 19
Some coaches will say special teams can make or break a game, and after Friday night, you can add No. 12-ranked Western to that list. A late blocked punt by Bellmont and an overtime block of a Panther extra point sent Western (9-3) packing in a thrilling game in Russiaville.
With 1:33 left to play in the game, Western led 14-7 as it faced a fourth and six at its own 20 yard line. The Panthers took the smart route and decided to punt the ball and rely on its tough defense to close out the game. Unfortunately, Brian Hakes had different plans as he broke through the Panther punt protection line and got a hand on the punt. The football scooted backwards, where Bellmont’s Ben Baker fell on it at the goal line. Three plays later, the score was tied and the game headed to overtime.
Bellmont (6-6) had the ball first and scored on a Cody Walters two-yard run. On Western’s overtime possession, quarterback Quin Fields fired a touchdown pass to Ronnie Smith, and the Black Attack faithful were ready for a second overtime as they sat on pins and needles. Unfortunately, Hakes again had different plans as he burst through the Western special team’s line and blocked the extra point to send Bellmont to the regional championship game and breaking the hearts of the Panthers.
Fields finished the game 6 of 10 for 95 yards and two touchdown passes; the second going to Matt Riley in the first quarter. James Davis led the rushing attack for Western with 86 yards and one touchdown, while Hudson Featherstone added 44 yards.
Class 2A Sectional 28
No. 7 Northwestern (10-2) entered the game knowing Tipton (8-4) was a dangerous team. They left with the same impression as the Blue Devils jumped out to a 35-14 first half lead before cruising to its second consecutive and seventh overall sectional championship.
The start of the game gave no indication of how the outcome would look on the scoreboard. Tipton scored early on 6-foot-2 sophomore quarterback Austin Hooker’s five-yard run, to which Northwestern countered as Kylan Dubbels scored from four-yards out to tie the score. Blake Hoover then caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Hooker to give Tipton a 14-7 lead after one quarter.
The second stanza saw the Purple Tigers score first on a 44-yard touchdown scamper by Marcus Salazar to tie the game at 14. But then the wheels fell off for Northwestern as Tipton scored 21 unanswered points in the final five minutes of the half to take the big halftime lead and kill any momentum the Tigers had built following the tie. The first score was a James Altherr two-yard run, followed by a pair of touchdown passes from Hooker to Jake Dye – one for 15-yards and the other for 29.
Hooker finished a fantastic game by connecting on 11 of 15 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He added 50-yards rushing and two scores. Altherr had 80 yards receiving for Tipton. Hoover, along with his touchdown catch, had a pair of interceptions, including a key pick late in the first half that led to a Tipton score.
For the Tigers, Salazar again led the way with 126 rushing yards, while Dubbels added 55. Quarterback Tanner Martin was 7 for 17 and 103 yards.