Where: At Lucas Oil Stadium TV: Fox Sports Indiana
Pioneer (14-0) vs. Eastern Greene (11-3), noon
Brebeuf (10-4) vs. Evansville Memorial (13-1), 3:30 p.m.
Kokomo (9-4) vs. Columbus East (13-1), 7 p.m.
Woodlan (12-2) vs. Southridge (12-2), noon
Lowell (14-0) vs. East Central (11-3), 3:30 p.m.
Penn (12-1) vs. Ben Davis (13-0), 7 p.m.
Woodlan has seen its fair share of obstacles along the road to the Class 2A state finals Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Already coming of a disappointing sectional semifinals loss to South Adams in 2016 after being ranked No. 1 most of the year, the Warriors (12-2) opened the season missing their top receiver Tre'Von McCarter.
Regrouping, Woodlan put together another solid but not spectacular regular season and suffered two rare defeats, including one to Adams Central that cost it the ACAC championship in the regular-season finale. Woodlan had undefeated regular seasons in 2015 and 2016.
Then just as the Warriors were again turning things around with a sectional title, they had to deal with missing another key piece in senior running back Jack Rhoades, who had to serve a suspension in a three-hour regional trip to North Newton.
It didn't look good for Woodlan missing Rhoades, who has gone over the 2,000-yard mark this season and holds the school record with more than 4,000 career yards from scrimmage.
“The team almost guaranteed Jack we were going to win because no one wanted to see him have already played his last game (in the sectional finals),” Woodlan coach Sherwood Haydock.
Despite not having Rhoades, a 40-28 win over North Newton put Woodlan back in the semistate for the second time in three years. But the Warriors had to go back on the road at No. 1 Eastbrook, last year's state runner-up. A traditional powerhouse, the Panthers rarely lose at home.
Seemingly true to form, Woodlan got a last-second 29-yard field goal from Luke Crilly to beat Eastbrook 15-14, and the program's first trip to the state finals in 36 years was secured. Haydock said it wasn't the dramatic way the team took out the Panthers, but more that they held one of the state's top scoring offense to only two touchdowns.
“I learned that this senior class is being who we thought they could be,” Haydock said. “We always knew they were always very athletic and very talented, but you want your senior class to lead. We've had such good leaders the last couple of years from our seniors, and we questioned what kind of leaders these guys were ... we knew they were good football players but they have stepped it up.”
A talented, but underachieving program became a team of destiny in just one season.
“We have these steps along the way where our players have grown and led; sometimes they believed they could do something when on paper it didn't look like it could,” Haydock said. “They have a done a good job overcoming all that.”
Now this team on a mission has another one to fulfill – trying to get the school that elusive state title. Current players and coaches have heard messages of encouragement from some members of the 1981 team that lost in the 1A state championship game 7-6 to Hamilton Southeastern.
The message has been simple: “They have been like, 'Let's finish this out so Woodlan can be state champion,'” Haydock said.
Greg Jones is the assistant sports editor for The Journal Gazette and has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1998. He can be reached by email at email@example.com; phone, 461-8224; or fax, 461-8648.