BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – It is hard to make Brett Colby speechless, but when he arrived in the Walter Cross Field press box after Friday night’s game, that is what he said he was, “Speechless.” And he should be – his Kokomo Wildkats are headed to the IHSAA Class 5A Final Four.
“I am happy for our kids. I am happy for our fans. I am happy for the school,” said Colby with a huge smile.
“It feels great,” said senior Jeron Gray. “To be out there with those guys each week is fun; we are having a fun time right now. We are a family.”
In one of two IHSAA North Regionals, the fourth-ranked Wildkats withstood cold temperatures, cramps and a very good Westfield team to earn a 21-19 thriller to claim the school’s first-ever football regional title and punch the Kats ticket into the semi-state. The victory was every-bit as close as the score indicated and the game came down to fundamentals – Kokomo hit all three of its extra points and protected the ball (one turnover) while Westfield missed an extra point and turned the pigskin over five times.
“We coach turnovers every day in our practices,” said Colby. “We teach to punch at the ball. I told them if they carry the ball low, we would get some turnovers. We worked on that Tuesday and Wednesday this week – our guys pay attention and do what they do.”
Kokomo once again got out of the gates quickly, despite a four-and-out on its first possession. On Westfield’s first play from scrimmage, Jonathan Swindan ran 13-yards to the left side only to have the ball stripped by Perry McCullum and taken away by Brevin Beard. Eight plays and 53 yards later, Kyle Wade called his own number and ran up the middle for the first touchdown of the night. Robby Lambert added the extra point, which was not a given considering the gusty winds and cold temperatures.
“Robby has been hot; he has kicked 10 in a row since we have got him from soccer,” said Colby of his place kicker, who was a perfect 3 for 3 in the game. “We have him kicking with us every day now, and our kicking game has gotten better.”
Westfield entered with the No. 10 ranking for a reason, and two series later they found the end zone courtesy of one the Kats few miscues – a fumbled snap on a punt at the 11 yard line. It took Andrew Sweet one play to score and the game was knotted one seven.
Westfield stopped Kokomo on its next series, but the Rocks returned the special team’s mistake by fumbling the punt reception and Beard fell on it. Marcelle Kenner then flexed his 6-foot-2, 260 pound muscle and bulldozed his way into the end zone on a 13-yard run, which was set up by his previous 17-yard trot. Lambert’s kick made it 14-7 at the end of one stanza.
“Marcelle had a lot of good, tough yards tonight,” said Colby. “I am real happy for him, and happy for everyone.”
Westfield looked to tie the game with 2:53 left in the first half after Ryan Pepiot found a wide-open Milo Beam for a 27-yard touchdown. But William Harrison’s extra point went wide and the teams went to the locker room with Kokomo leading 14-13.
A defensive battle took over the third, and Kokomo’s Wreckin’ Crew stopped Swindan on three consecutive rushes to start the fourth quarter and take over on downs. Kokomo used a combination of Gray, Keenen Wheeler and Kenner – plus a pass from Kyle Wade – to move the ball to the nine. Kenner then ran over the right guard slot, spun and scored to put the Kats up 21-13 in front of nearly 2,000 fans.
Westfield returned to the end zone on its next possession, marching 64 yards on five plays and scoring on a Pepiot to Max McCool 13-yard touchdown with 4:43 left. Forced to go for the two-point conversion, Pepiot’s pass was knocked down by Luke Cameron in the end zone and Kokomo held a 21-19 lead in the IHSAA Game of the Week (broadcast worldwide on the internet via the IHSAA Champions Network).
On Kokomo’s next possession, Colby knew he had to eat some time. On second down, he went to the trick play book and pulled out a halfback pass from Gray to Keenen Wheeler that turned into a key first down. Then Gray dropped back for another pass three plays later and Westfield was called for pass interference to prolong Kokomo’s drive and eat up key time off the clock.
“I practiced that play and I knew he could catch it,” said Gray of the pass. “I knew it would happen.”
The Shamrocks would eventually stop Kokomo with 33 seconds left, but a desperation Hail Mary was picked off by Cameron at the buzzer to give the Kats its first taste of a football Final Four.
“We started picking at that scab, and they started bleeding in that fourth quarter,” said Colby.
Kenner finished with 83 yards on 17 carries and two touchdown. Wheeler had 77 yards rushing on nine touches while Gray had 70 yards on 21 carries. Wade was 11-20-1 for 129 yards. Gray caught six of those for 81 yards.
Swidan led Westfield with 127 rushing yards. Pepiot was 16-27-2 for 196 yards.
Cameron, a sophomore, had the game of his life with 10 tackles (six solo), one forced fumble, one interception and the big two-point conversion stop. Perry McCullum had a forced fumble and interception, Cameron Fitts had a sack and Jordan Matthews recovered a fumble.
“We are excited to be playing one more week,” said Colby. “Now we are 48 minutes away (from the state championship game in Lucas Oil Stadium) instead of 96.”
Kokomo (12-0) will travel to No. 5 Fort Wayne Snider (11-1) in the one-game semi-state this Friday night at 7 p.m. The Panthers defeated No. 7 Mishawaka 42-32. Kokomo has never defeated Snider – the Panthers have knocked the Wildkats out of the state football playoffs four times, including a 7-0 regional title game in 1985.
IHSAA CLASS 5A FOOTBALL SEMI-STATE
The Final Four – November 20, 2015
#4 Kokomo (12-0) at #5 FW Snider (11-1)
Castle (8-4) at #1 New Palestine (12-0)