Senior staff writer
With one word, veteran Roncalli football coach Bruce Scifres summed up the Rebels’ ninth state championship Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The 4A No. 1-ranked Rebels utilized an opportunistic defense to thwart No. 2 NorthWood’s prolific offense in a 34-22 Class 4A title game to cap an undefeated season with 15 wins, including two playoff triumphs on last-second field goals.
The Rebels returned to the championship game for the first time since their four straight appearances from 2002-05. This was their seventh state title under 27-year coach Scifres (248-88) and the third time the Rebels went undefeated (14-0, 1993 and 15-0, ’99).
“In a word, amazing,” Scifres said while the Rebels proudly held the trophy high in front of their adoring fans. “The way our kids performed all season, stepped up and fought through adversity was amazing.”
The Rebels turned third-generation quarterback Derek O’Connor into a workhorse on the ground with 31 carries for 179 yards and three touchdowns. O’Connor’s previous season high was 20 carries against Decatur Central.
O’Connor said they didn’t quite plan it that way but after 13 carries for 40 yards and two TDs in the first half, the Rebels adjusted at halftime and returned with the senior signal-caller hitting the seams consistently to keep the Panthers’ defense backed up.
“I owe this one to the O-line,” O’Conner said. “They were unbelievable with their blocks and making sure we kept the ball moving.”
Two plays were key to winning. First, O’Connor connected with Jacob Luedeman on a 70-yard touchdown pass for a 28-14 lead. O’Connor said the play was designed as a curl, but two defenders came up so Luedeman continued down the sideline for the TD pass.
And then early in the fourth quarter, NorthWood had the ball on Roncalli’s 18-yard line after a bad snap from center with the Rebels clinging to a 28-22 lead. On fourth down though, Roncalli defensive back Dylan Williams intercepted a pass on the 3 and returned it to midfield before stepping out of bounds.
The interception set up Roncalli’s final scoring drive, which ended with O’Connor scoring from the 22 for the final 34-22 count.
“They (NorthWood) were explosive and could do a lot of things from different formations,” Scifres said. “That’s what had me stressed until the last second ticked off the clock.”
The Rebels iced the game after stopping the Panthers on fourth down on Roncalli’s 31 and making four first downs to run out the clock in the final 6 minutes, 43 seconds.
“This feels awesome,” Scifres said. “It’s wonderful anytime that you have the opportunity to play in a state championship game. As happy as I am, I’m more proud and happier for our kids – all the hard work they put in. They have been an unbelievable group to work with.”
Roncalli controlled the ball for 31:42 and ran 73 plays for 417 yards. O’Connor completed 11-of-18 passes to seven different receivers for 159 yards. Kenny Gillum gained 78 yards on 14 carries and Luke Smock 45 yards and one touchdown on four carries.
The Panthers ran 44 plays for 260 yards, and they dangerous passing attack was limited to 11 completions in 24 attempts. Defensively, the Rebels were led by Cade Morgan, six tackles; John Harris and Alex Kuntz, four tackles each; and Josh Swan three tackles. Williams and Gabe Otley came up with interceptions,
“We knew they had a passing game, but we knew we had to stop the run first,” Kunz said. “Then we just had to make plays when they threw the ball and we did.”
The Rebels move up to Class 5A in 2017 due to the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s “success factor.”
Roncalli will lose nine senior starters on offense: O’Connor, Gillum, Smock, Ben Walesky, Paul Agresta, Will English, Marc Roland, Aiden Parker and Jacob Fryar. Juniors Luedeman and lineman Christian Walker are expected to return. The Rebels will lose six starters on defense: Otley, Swan, Kuntz, Zane Wagner, Christian Brueggemann, and Chris Teney. Juniors Williams, Morgan, Tony Schott, Dominic Clouse and Jones Asher are expected to return.