In the two games leading up to their NECC showdown with Churubusco, the Lakeland defense was anything but stellar. The Lakers had given up a combined 84 points in losses to Fairfield and Fort Wayne Concordia.
But when they were called on to perform against the Eagles, the Lakeland defense rose to the occasion.
A 97-yard pass interception return for a touchdown by Morgan Moore at the end of the first half and a courageous denial of a two-point conversion in the final minutes of the fourth quarter lifted the Lakers to a 14-13 victory over Churubusco. The win earned coach Keith Thompson’s squad a share of the NECC championship (along with Fairfield) for the first time in four years.
“Our defense played a whale of a game and came up with some stops when we needed them,” said Thompson. “To play as well as they did after what they went through the past two weeks is really phenomenal.
“Tonight is what high school football is all about,” Thompson continued. “Two good teams, playing their hearts out with a lot riding on the line. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Lakeland, which hadn’t beaten Churubusco since 2007, broke out on top, 7-0 late in the first quarter when quarterback William Kelly connected with tight end Wyatt Petty on a 49-yard touchdown pass. Petty caught Kelly’s aerial at the Eagle 30 and raced down the sideline for the score.
Churubusco tied the game with 3:29 left in the second period when Hayden Kilgore converted a fourth-and-14 from the Laker 25 by hitting a wide-open Logan Harris in the back of the end zone. The tally capped a short drive set up by a bad snap on a Lakeland punt attempt.
The Eagles got the ball back moments later when Harris picked off a Kelly pass and returned it to the Laker 32. Several running plays and a 13-yard hookup between Kilgore and Corey Sarrazin moved the pigskin down to the five.
But on fourth down, Kilgore was flushed from the pocket and his pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Moore snatched the ball at the three and rambled down the sideline for a 97-yard touchdown return and a 14-7 Lakeland advantage.
“I was done around the 20 (yard line),” joked Moore, “but thanks to some blocks by my teammates, I was able to get in. Churubusco had run that same ‘waggle’ play a lot and we were ready for it.
“This means everything,” Moore said of the NECC crown. “It’s been hard the last two years losing the title to Busco. We really came together as a team tonight.”
Two more big stops in the fourth period sealed the Laker victory. The first came with 10:40 left when they stopped the Eagles on downs at the 13.
With 4:34 to play, Churubusco linebacker Landon Harris stepped in front of a Kelly pass and returned it to the 17. Six plays later, Kane Johnson took a pitch from Kilgore and raced around his right end into the end zone for a touchdown, cutting the margin to 14-13 with 1:34 remaining.
Eschewing the tying PAT kick, Eagle coach Paul Sade went for the lead by trying a two-point conversion. However, Kilgore was stopped inches short of the goalline by a wave of blue-clad Lakeland defenders.
Churubusco got the ball back at its own 19 with 1:07 to play. But Lakeland cornerback Joel Miller ended the Eagle hopes when he picked off Kilgore at the 43 with 47 seconds on the clock.
Kelly was 10-22 passing for 117 yards. Miller caught six aerials for 50 yards and Petty two for 59.
Moore topped the Lakeland tackle chart with 15 stops. Petty had 11 and Kyle Casper 10.
The Lakers take a 7-2 record into the Class 3A state playoffs, which begin this Friday night when they host Fort Wayne Concordia. The 6-3 Cadets, who throttled Lakeland, 35-3 in Fort Wayne two weeks ago, come into the contest riding a four-game winning streak.
Scoring by quarters
CH 0 7 0 6 -13
LL 7 7 0 0 -14
LL—Wyatt Petty 49-yard pass from William Kelly, Marco Olivares kick
CH—Logan Harris 25-yard pass from Hayden Kilgore, Taylor Fisher kick
LL—Morgan Moore 97-yard interception return, Olivares kick
CH—Kane Johnson three-yard run, two-point conversion fails
Total Yards 203 129
Rushing 108 12
Passing 95 117
Total Plays 68 47
First Downs 13 6
Turnovers 2 3
Penalties 10-80 8-47
CH—Johnson 21-77; Conwell 24-42; Kilgore 7-(-11)
LL—Raatz 5-16; Roebel 8-12; Casper 5-7; Fuller 2-2; Kelly 4-(-24)
CH—Kilgore 4-16, 81
LL—Kelly 10-22, 117; Garretson 0-1, 0
CH—Johnson 2-48; Harris 1-25; Sarrazin 1-12; Conwell 1-10
LL—Miller 6-50; Petty 2-59; Raatz 1-7; Casper 1-1
CH—McParlan 7; Harris 6; Brumbaugh 5
LL—Moore 15; Petty 11; Casper 10; Raatz 9