BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. - Avenging a loss is commonplace in sports. For most, the attempt to make-up for a loss to a team comes later in the season or the next year. For others, the chance to avenge a tough loss can take years. For the Kokomo Wildkats, it was the latter. On a beautiful Friday night at Walter Cross Field, the Kats avenged a loss 50 years in the making when it knocked off Indianapolis Arsenal Tech 61-27 in a record-setting performance in a non-conference contest.
“I was happy with the improvement we made from week one,” said Kokomo head coach Brett Colby.
It was October 15, 1965, when Kokomo and Tech last met on the gridiron and the Kats were in its football heyday. In the 1950s and 60s, Kokomo was a regular member of the Top 10 polls under the leadership of Bob Hamilton (147-109 from 1955-1981). They tallied undefeated seasons in 1957 and 1961 during an era before the state football tournament – state championships were crowned by one of several polls in the state and not recognized by the IHSAA – but they never finished number one. In 1964, the Kats finally snagged a “mythical state championship” in a 10-0 season that saw the Litkenhous Ratings call the Kats No. 1. Unfortunately, the more powerful AP Media Poll and UPI Coaches Poll both named South Bend St. Joseph (9-0-1) as its state champ with the Kats second.
In the 1965 non-conference contest – charter member Tech left the North Central Conference in 1960 before returning this season – the Titans visited Kautz Field in downtown Kokomo and departed with a 27-13 upset win. But it was no ordinary victory as the Kats were 6-0, on a 19-game winning streak and ranked No. 1 in the state of Indiana by all major polls.
With a capacity Homecoming crowd cheering, the Titans led the Kats 20-13 with a little more than five minutes remaining on the game clock and the Wildkats were driving down the field in a bid to tie the contest. With a first-and-goal at the 10, future Wildkat head coach Willard Rice looked to the end zone with a pass to Raleigh Grady, but Tech’s Charles Sanders stepped in front of the throw and raced 97-yards for a touchdown.
"Sure, it’s nice to be number one in the state," Hamilton told the Kokomo Morning Times, “but by golly we were number one in the state last year and they wouldn't give it to us.”
Fast forward 50 years and the Kats finally had its chance at redemption – and they got it. Wildkat sophomore signal-caller Kyle Wade was near perfect and the famed Brett Colby double-wing ground attack was devastating as Kokomo tallied a school record 587 yards of total offense (412 yards rushing). On the other side of the ball, the Kats defense held Tech to 187 total yards while forcing five turnovers, including three on the Titans first three possessions.
“That is one of those things and good for the kids,” said Colby of the offensive record. “I really think our passing game is going to help us this year. We are going to keep throwing new things into the offense to make it tougher to stop us this year.”
The game started out slow for both teams as Tech fumbled away its first two possessions while the Kats did the same on its first. But Kokomo took the Titans second fumble and marched 43 yards on seven plays, scoring on a 3-yard rush up the gut by Marcelle Kenner. On Tech’s next possession, Keenan Wheeler – who forced the Titans second fumble – picked off a pass at mid-field. Five plays later, Jeron Gray rushed over the left end and raced 31 yards for the first of his school record-tying five touchdowns.
Tech’s Juwuan Gilbert returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to set up the Titans first score. The two squads traded possessions and Kokomo put the game away when Kenner scored for the second time, this time a 1-yard dive into the end zone. Kokomo took a 28-6 lead into half time after Wade found Gray for a 7-yard score with 15 ticks remaining in the half.
Wade was sensational in just his 12th game under center. During his entire freshman season, Wade completed 22 of 66 attempts (33.3 percent) for 284 yards and four scores. Against Tech, Wade showed what a year of experience can do as he hit on 11 of 13 attempts (school record 84.6 percent; previous mark was 81.8 by Kevin Lechner in 1981) for 175 and three touchdowns. He also set the school single-game passing efficiency record at 273.85 – shattering the previous mark of 200.0 by Tayler Persons in 2013.
“The game has slowed down so much for him as a sophomore,” Colby said of Wade. “He is reading things a little better and has a lot of confidence. He is throwing better because he is throwing on the run downhill instead of off his back foot. I am hoping for a special year for him.”
Gray finished with 176 rushing yards (three scores) and 42 yards receiving (two scores). Wheeler added 151 rushing yards (one touchdown) and 28 receiving yards (one touchdown) and Kenner had 59 yards rushing and two scores. Jordan Matthews led all receivers with 74 yards on four catches; he also had an interception on defense. Perry McCullum led the defense with eight tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss. Kendale Harris had a forced fumble and Jack Perkins had the Kats third interception.
“(Wheeler) had a better week of practice and that means everything,” said Colby. “He took some criticism last week for the way he was running but he looked good tonight. If we can get that three-head monster going again (Gray, Wheeler and Kenner) and throw the ball, it only makes us better.”
The Kats victory might have been 50 years in the making, but as Hamilton said after the last time Kokomo played Tech, “What I'm really concerned about is winning that North Central Conference championship. That's the one that counts and that's the one we have to think about now." Kokomo (2-0 for the first time since 2010) opens its bid for an 18th NCC football title Friday night at Marion (0-2).