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A night of almosts

Northfield's Graydon Holmes (25) sheds off a pair of defenders during Friday's sectional final game against Adams Central.

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

It’ll be hard for the Northfield football team to not look back on Friday’s sectional final and wonder “What if?”

On a night the Norse hung with Class A No. 4 Adams Central from start to finish, a handful of costly miscues were the difference as the Flying Jets held on for a 38-28 win on the road to capture the sectional title.

“We knew that they’re a good running football team,” Northfield head coach Brandon Baker said. “We knew we were going to have to stop the run and we didn’t do that very well. We did at times but against a team that does what we wanted to do, keep the clock going, all of the sudden we get down and time is against us. We fought hard, gave it everything we had and I’m proud of them. We just came up short.”

The second half will play particularly often on repeat in the minds of the Norse with so many game-changing moments in the final 24 minutes.

Coming out of the locker room down 24-14, the Norse stormed down the field in the opening drive of the half. Northfield looked primed for a long scoring run from Graydon Holmes as the senior broke free on a first-down run from the Adams Central 38. However, a last-ditch tackle not only saved a touchdown but also knocked the ball loose as the Jets recovered at their own 10-yard line.

After stuffing Adam Central on back-to-back runs, the Norse looked to have gained back the momentum as Jayden Goshert picked off a Dallas Schwaller pass inside the red zone. However, a roughing the passer penalty would negate the interception.

Northfield would eventually force a punt and would eventually punch it in on a seven-yard run by Clayton Tomlinson but the score wouldn’t come until just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter.

The next series was deja vu all over again as Tomlinson picked off Schwaller on 3rd-and-13 from the Jets 40-yard line but, again, Northfield would be flagged for roughing the passer. This time, Adams Central made good on its second chance as a halfback pass from Alex Currie to Nick Neuenschwander covered 43 yards and extended Northfield’s lead back to 31-21 with 11 seconds left in the third period.

Northfield immediately closed the gap again, driving 61 yards on eight plays with a defensive pass interference by the Jets negating an interception on a halfback pass from Tomlinson. Six plays later, Tomlinson would be the one to find paydirt on a four-yard touchdown run, pulling the Norse back within three points at 31-28 with 9:19 left in the contest.

The Norse got the defensive stop they needed in the next drive, though it came after a lengthy drive from the visitors. But on 4th-and-7 from the Norse 14-yard line, Goshert would pick off Schwaller inside the five-yard line before returning it to the 12-yard line, setting up the Norse with a chance to tie or take the lead with just under four minutes remaining.

But the biggest miscue of the night came two plays later as Levi Fulkerson would be pressured in the backfield and toss up a jump ball deep downfield that would be picked off by Schwaller. The Jets would methodically move the ball back into the red zone before, on 4th-and-3 from the Norse 14-yard line, icing the game on a 14-yard run from Blake Heyerly with 43 seconds left.

Adams Central would pick off Northfield once more in the closing seconds before kneeling out the clock to seal its 10-point win.

While playing from behind the entire second half, Northfield held a brief lead in the first half as part of an opening two quarters where the sides combined for 401 yards of offense.

Each team scored on its opening drives, Adams Central on a five-yard run from Schwaller and Northfield on a two-yard run from Fulkerson. The Norse would hold firm on the next drive and force a punt that would be blocked and recovered at the Jets’ 40-yard line.

Holmes would sandwich runs of 18 and 10 yards around an 11-yard run from Jarret Shafer before Fulkerson scored from one yard out to give Northfield a 14-7 lead.

Adams Central needed little time to respond, driving 64 yards in 3:26 to tie the game at 14-14 on a six-yard pass from Schwaller to Neuenschwander. Northfield would go three-and-out and Adams Central took the lead on its next drive as Schwaller found Ben Voirol for a six-yard touchdown.

The Norse would hand the ball over for the first of its four turnovers on the night on the next drive as Fulkerson fumbled and the Jets recovered at their own 34-yard line. The Norse defense would offer more resistance on the next Adams Central drive, eventually forcing a 22-yard field goal in the final seconds of the half, giving the guests a 24-14 halftime lead.

“We weren’t filling holes on defense,” Baker said of the first half. “And they were tearing us on just the inside run. And offensively, we were just hurting ourselves. We put the ball on the ground and penalties and getting behind the chains. So, we just said ‘We have to keep doing what we’re doing. Fill the holes like you’ve been taught. Do what you’re supposed to do and we’ll be ok.’”

Northfield was led by Holmes’ 87 yards on nine carries and 18 yards on two receptions. Fulkerson scored three times on 11 rushes with 34 yards while going 8-for-13 for 81 yards and two interceptions through the air. Alex Haupert had 38 yards on the night and Tomlinson 46 with a score.

Heyerly was the standout for the Jets, rushing 31 times for 184 yards and a score. Schwaller finished 5-for-14 for 89 yards with two touchdowns and an interception through the air while rushing for 16 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Currie had 43 yards passing for a touchdown, 41 yards rushing and 65 yards receiving for a grand total of 149 yards.

Northfield finishes the season with a 7-5 record, a far cry from where many expected the Norse to be after an 0-4 start. While Friday’s loss was particularly tough, for Baker, it was also a testament to how far his team had come.

“We had many heart to hearts the first few weeks of the season,” he said. “We told them that we’re not going to give up on them but we just haven’t figured how to get them going yet. We did as a staff and they responded and we went on a hell of a run. Going to a sectional championship, being one of the final 16 teams in the state, it’s a tribute to what they did.

“Again, I’m proud of, when you look of where we’ve come, from 0-4 and the world’s going to end to playing for a sectional championship, it’s a tribute to the effort these guys put in day in and day out.”