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June 29, 2014

Gold surprises Black 35-12 in WVFCA All-Star Game

TERRE HAUTE — A dozen players from Terre Haute North were hoping that Saturday night’s Wabash Valley Football Coaches Association All-Star Game at Memorial Stadium would put a fitting exclamation point on their historic 2013 high school season.

But there were four other smaller schools in the Valley that also had excellent seasons, and Brian Oliver drafted all of them.

“I’m a coach at a small school,” said the Linton coach, whose first year resulted in an Indiana Class A semistate appearance and earned him the right to be an all-star coach opposite North’s Chris Barrett, “and I picked [Casey, North Vermillion and North Central, among others] because I know how much heart those schools play with.

“I knew those kids would come out tonight and give me everything they had, and they did,” he continued after a 35-12 victory by a Gold squad that had probably been considered an underdog.

“Coach Oliver told us before the game he specifically picked these teams,” added quarterback Nicco Stepina of Casey, who ran for two touchdowns and passed for another. “A lot of guys got second chances tonight.”

“I feel like the small schools have a lot of heart, because they have to rely on themselves,” said North Vermillion linebacker Ethan Kunkle, “and we did great.”

“It was kind of weird, playing on a team with other teams that didn’t like me much during the regular season,” said North Central running back Chase VanSchoyck, “but it was really fun. Everybody is super competitive; the top thing is winning, and when that’s the goal everybody plays hard.”

“We were kind of skeptical at the beginning of the week,” admitted Linton defensive back Zane Hayden, “so to come out here and have this win … Terre Haute North is one heck of a team. This was definitely a huge victory.”

Gold didn’t pick up a first down on either of its first two offensive possessions, while Black was getting a first down every time North’s Kai Stratten touched the ball in the game’s first eight minutes.

But Gold got a defensive stop on a fourth-down play by West Vigo’s Skyler Warnock and Covington’s Nick Ratcliff and stopped Black’s second series on an interception by North Central’s Dillon Bailey.

Then the game turned around quickly.

Although Gold failed to move the ball for a third series, VanSchoyck forced a fumble on Black’s punt return and Cumberland’s Ethan Kemper recovered. Stepina hit Linton’s Dane Rupska for a 12-yard gain on a critical third-down pass, then ran for a touchdown two plays after that.

With Kunkle leading a defensive charge that was stifling its running attack, Black was forced to punt. Hayden returned the kick 35 yards, and Gold drove 40 yards in nine plays for another score — and found something that worked in the process.

Facing a fourth-and-three situation deep in Black territory, Gold went to its tight power formation, got the first down on a 5-yard burst by VanSchoyck, and wound up staying in that formation for the rest of the drive — capped by Stepina’s 7-yard pass to Rupska — and most of the rest of the game.

“I wasn’t expecting to come out in our goal-line set,” Oliver said later, “but we ran that well. We were flying by the seat of our pants for awhile looking for something that worked … but the kids lined up and played smashmouth football. We had three very solid quarterbacks [Stepina, North Vermillion’s Brayden Woodard and Greencastle’s Ty Scott] that we were able to use in different ways, and I was very fortunate to have a great coaching staff.”

“We kept the ball, took time off the clock — it went well,” Stepina added.

Black fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Casey’s Zack Murphy recovering for the Gold team, but what might have been a game-clinching drive was stopped at the 2-yard line when North’s Ricky Scank recovered a fumble. Gold had one other late drive, set up by two big receptions by Casey’s Austin Glidewell, but South Putnam’s Wes Riner blocked a field goal attempt on the last play of the half.

“Our coaches really emphasized keying on [Black’s] pulling guards,” explained Kunkle, who admits to being 5-foot-9 and about 165 pounds, “and that led us right to the play.”

“We started off pretty well … my teammates did a great job blocking,” Stratten said, “but maybe we got a little caught up in the crowd and the all-star hype.”

Black was forced to punt after one first down on its first series of the second quarter, and Gold made it 21-0 by grinding out 77 yards in 14 plays — all but one on the ground. Stepina capped that march with a 2-yard run with 2:20 left in the third quarter.

That seemed to awaken the Black attack, however, and before the midpoint of the fourth quarter the momentum swung.

First North’s Ricky Brookins ripped off two big runs, setting up a touchdown pass from Chris Barrett II to Cloverdale’s Wade Warren before the third quarter ended.

A defensive stop and a high snap on a punt attempt that forced an unsuccessful desperation pass gave Black the ball back almost immediately, and four plays later Barrett II found Olney’s Nolan Shan for a touchdown pass. Brookins’ apparent 2-point conversion reception that would have cut the lead to 21-14 was overturned after the referees conferred, but there was still plenty of time to complete a comeback.

“We did [have momentum],” coach Barrett agreed, “for a minute.”

An onside kickoff was up for grabs among several players from both teams before Xavier Holt of Paris plucked the ball on a high bounce and carried it into Black territory. On the next play, VanSchoyck — who had had a long touchdown run wiped out by a penalty early in the third quarter — weaved his way through the Black defense for a 47-yard touchdown run, and Scott added the game’s final score with 30 seconds to play.

“We had too many turnovers,” coach Barrett said. “You can’t do that in an all-star game and expect to win.

“It was a great week, a very fun week meeting all these guys,” the coach continued. “It just wasn’t our night. [Gold had] great football players.”

“We tried our best, but we didn’t prevail,” added Stratten. “I had a great season with these [North] guys that I’ve played with since third grade. To get to play my last game with them, on the field where I’ll play college football, this was a very great honor.”

“To come out here as one unit and start dominating together, it was awesome,” Hayden concluded.

n Winners — Scholarships awarded in this year’s 10th annual game were the Pete Varda Scholarships chosen by the players, to Stepina and North’s Wyatt Stoelting; the Sir Thomas Automotive coaches’ picks, to Brookins and North Vermillion’s Robby Davis; and the Brett Eitel Memorial Scholarship for academics, which went to North Knox’s Wyatt Held.

n Winning inspiration? Brionna Myers, a young student from the West Vigo district whose family is raising funds to help find a cure for mitochondrial disease — which she has — led the Gold team onto the field before the game, with Warnock pushing her wheelchair.

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