While running roughshod over their first eight opponents, the Lakeland Lakers took pride in being the most physical football team on the field.
Last Friday night in Churubusco, however, the Lakers ran into an even more physical bunch of Eagles.
Led by the powerful running of senior halfback Jason Nicodemus, Churubusco dashed Lakeland’s hopes for an unbeaten season and an outright NECC championship with a 38-16 thrashing of the Lakers.
“That is one heck of a football team,” said Lakeland head coach Keith Thompson of the Eagles, who wind up the conference loop with an 8-0 record, while the Lakers settled for second with a 7-1 mark. “Whoever controls the line of scrimmage almost always wins and Churubusco controlled the line of scrimmage, pure and simple. We could not stop their running game and we couldn’t get into a flow offensively.”
Nicodemus, a 5-9, 205-pound bruiser, continually gashed the Lakeland defense with huge gains and was nearly unstoppable once he smelled the end zone. The senior scored all five of the Eagles’ touchdowns and finished the contest with 217 yards on 28 carries.
“He is a horse,” Thompson said in praise of Nicodemus. “Churubusco stepped up its game tonight over what they had done in the previous two weeks (a loss to Culver Academy and a close win over Fairfield). But they are used to playing in games like this having made deep runs in the state tournament in recent years.”
Lakeland actually struck first in the game when defensive tackle Evan Garretson tackled Eagle quarterback Jay Petrie in the end zone for a safety with just 58 seconds elapsed. A botched reverse on the opening kickoff put Churubusco back on its own one to start the possession.
An exchange of turnovers and a Lakeland punt gave the hosts the ball at their own 38. Two snaps later, Nicodemus burst through the line, shed several Laker tacklers at the 35 and raced the rest of the way to the end zone to complete a 52-yard scoring romp.
Late in the first quarter, Churubusco drove from its own 29 into Lakeland territory. On the second play of the second stanza, Nicodemus picked up eight yards on a fourth-and-two from the 13. The standout then strolled to paydirt on the next snap to put the Eagles up, 14-2.
Needing a spark as the first half neared its end, the Laker offense turned to quarterback William Kelly to provide one. The junior came through, as he fired a perfect strike to a wide-open T.J. Thompson at midfield. Thompson sprinted in to complete an 80-yard touchdown.
But just before the half ended, Churubusco got a 26-yard field goal from Parker Conrad to give the hosts a 17-9 cushion. The kick capped off an 11-play, 65-yard march that was kept alive by a roughing-the-passer penalty on the Lakers.
The third period was all Churubusco. While its defense limited Lakeland to one first down and two yards on its first two possessions, the Eagle offense put together a pair of short scoring drives to extend the difference to 31-9. Nicodemus capped each with touchdown runs of five and three yards.
“We weren’t able to create space for our athletes to make plays,” Thompson cited. “We left a lot of plays on the field.”
Nicodemus culminated his big night with a one-yard touchdown plunge late in the fourth quarter. The Lakers had scored four minutes earlier on a Joey Fuller dive after linebacker Kyle Casper recovered a fumble at the Churubusco three.
Fuller gained 48 yards on 12 carries to lead the Lakeland in rushing. Four sacks of Kelly helped the Eagles hold the normally potent Laker ground attack to a net 43 yards.
Linebackers Logan Owens and Chris Leary topped the Lakeland tackle chart with 9.5 and 9.0 stops, respectively. Casper intercepted a pass to go with his fumble recovery.
Next up for the 8-1 Lakers is a trip to Heritage this Friday for the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs. The Patriots, who defeated Lakeland, 13-8 in the 2008 tournament, come into this year’s clash at 7-2 after pummeling Garrett, 56-20 to earn a piece of the ACAC championship.
“This (loss to Churubusco) hurts, but if we stick together and learn from the mistakes we made, we’ll be the better for it,” said Thompson. “Heritage is a very good team and we’ll need to play our best to win and move on in the sectional.”
The kickoff for the sectional 18 tilt in Monroeville is set for 7:30 p.m.
Scoring by quarters
LL 2 7 0 7 -16
CH 7 10 14 7 -38
LL—Evan Garretson tackles Churubusco quarterback in end zone for safety (11:02)
CH—Jason Nicodemus 52-yard run, Parker Conrad kick (7:42)
CH—Nicodemus five-yard run, Conrad kick (10:47)
LL—T.J. Thompson 80-yard pass from William Kelly, Marco Olivares kick (4:02)
CH—Conrad 26-yard field goal (0:00)
CH—Nicodemus five-yard run, Conrad kick (6:49)
CH—Nicodemus three-yard run, Conrad kick (1:13)
LL—Joey Fuller two-yard run, Olivares kick (5:43)
CH—Nicodemus one-yard run, Conrad kick (1:37)
First Downs 9 17
Rushing Yds. 43 269
Passing Yds. 134 23
Total Yards 177 292
Total Plays 44 56
Turnovers 2 2
Penalties 7-52 2-6
LL—Fuller 12-48; Dimos 4-19; Bender 4-9; Troyer 2-6; Raatz 2-(-1); Kelly 4-(-38)
CH—Nicodemus 28-217; Miller 9-54; Conwell 3-11; Shively 1-2; Johnson 4-(-7); Petrie 5-(-8)
LL—Kelly 7-16, 134
CH—Petrie 3-6, 23
LL—Owens 4-42; Thompson 3-92
CH—Miller 2-11; Siddons 1-12
LL—Owens 9.5; Leary 9.0; Casper 4.0; Troyer 4.0; Petty 3.5
CH—Shively 6.5; Harris 4.5; Hicks 3.0