2019 had the feel of 2014 for at least a few weeks this fall.
The Rensselaer Central football team built momentum in weeks 7 through 9 and weeks 10 and 11 — coinciding with the return of senior Eli Hickman at quarterback — during the playoffs, whipping both Wheeler and North Newton to reach the Sectional 33 championship.
Their ability to storm past their first two opponents put the 2014 state championship team in mind. That season, the Bombers — who would finish 15-0 in claiming a 2A title — steamrolled sectional and regional foes before facing a tough Lafayette Central Catholic squad at semistate. The Bombers were just good enough in that match-up, winning 17-14 to advance to the state finals.
The Bombers did come into last week’s game with Andrean as the underdog, though a slight one. But they failed to give themselves a chance once the game started, fumbling the ball twice on their first three offensive plays.
It was an uphill climb the rest of the night after trailing 13-0, but they did give themselves a chance. The play of the game came midway through the third quarter. Trailing by 12 points (32-20), the Bombers — who had their way with Andrean offensively all night — appeared to ready to cut the lead to four when another fumble at midfield was scooped up by Andrean’s Ryan Walsh and returned 67 yards for a touchdown for a 38-20 lead.
Andrean would eventually win the game, 44-34, to improve to 2-0 lifetime against RCHS. It was the 59ers first sectional title since 2014 when they reached the state finals in 3A. RCHS also reached the state finals in 2A that season, rolling over Evansville Mater Dei, as Bomber fans know quite well.
The Bombers came into the sectional final with just 11 fumbles — losing eight — in the first 11 games, but committed three fumbles to gift Andrean, which didn’t do anything on defense to disrupt RCHS’s rhythm. The Bombers were their own worst enemy.
In fact, Andrean failed to force RCHS to punt all night. The Niners did stop Rensselaer’s offense twice: once at halftime when there was no more time to run a play and again on Rensselaer’s last series to end the game.
In between, Rensselaer scored on five of six possessions to six of eight for Andrean. The Niners scored the game’s only defensive touchdown.
On the ride home from the game, two analysts on Regional Sports Network said the Andrean defense — which allowed 519 yards of offense — did just enough to stop the Bombers, making plays when it counted most.
Unfortunately, that was far from the case as fans will attest. Andrean failed to slow the Bombers, who had perhaps their best offensive showing of the season — when they kept possession of the football. Rensselaer’s superior push at the offensive line, which galvanized into a force of nature over the season’s final weeks, gave it an opportunity to claim another sectional.
Instead, Andrean faced Lewis Cass at home for a regional title Friday night. It was expected to be more of the same for the Niners, who will try to slow one of the state’s offenses one week after allowing over 500 yards to RCHS.
The Bombers finished the season as the team of the year in the area, going 9-3 against a schedule that included state-ranked West Lafayette, Western and Lafayette Central Catholic.
They lose 13 seniors to graduation, including Hickman and 1,000-yard rusher Noah Bierma as well as three-time leading tackler Luke Standish and three of their five linemen.
But they return an experienced quarterback in Tate Drone, who filled in admirably for the injured Hickman, and a bevy of running backs, including 1,000-yard rusher Addison Wilmington, sophomore Kelton Hesson and junior Dalton Kidd, who was the team’s top offensive weapon against Andrean last week and could be a disrupting force next year.
Rensselaer will also welcome back sophomore Dylan Kidd, perhaps the team’s most talented back. He was lost to the season with a knee injury that required surgery, but is expected to be an integral part of the offense (and defense) in 2020.
If coach Chris Meeks and his staff can retool the line, the Bombers should enjoy another successful season. The defense will also be without key pieces, but the roster has several young players who could be used to plug holes.
North Newton had the area’s second-best mark at 7-4, but will go into 2020 without its best player in senior Colin Wagner. A 1,800-yard rusher, Wagner was also one of the area’s most devastating defensive players.
The Spartans will return quarterback Austin Goddard and most of their line, so they should remain competitive.
Kankakee Valley will return three of its five linemen in 2020 as well as quarterback Eli Carden. The Kougars remain athletic and will fold in some talented youngsters next season after finishing 4-6 this fall.
Tri-County played several youngsters this fall during a 1-9 finish and should reap more rewards in 2020. West Central, which finished 3-6, will rely on a more youthful team in 2020, and South Newton found a gem in duel-threat quarterback Kayden Cruz. The Rebels finished unbeaten at 0-10, but should be improved next fall.