FOUNTAIN CITY, Ind.
If winning a Tri-Eastern Conference championship was easy, it might have happened sooner for Northeastern High School’s football team.
It seemed like once again, the Knights would be denied Friday night.
All night long, things went Union City’s way, and one more time, it looked as though it was not in the cards for the Knights to get a championship.
But then, Lareland Cooper came up big.
Kelsy Kirkland fumbled the ball in the end zone as he tried to tie the game for Northeastern, but Cooper jumped on top of the loose pigskin to tie the game.
Quarterback Joey Claypoole then carried the ball into the end zone for a two-point conversion, a 16-14 final, and for the first time ever, a share of the TEC championship.
“Kelsy’s right there at the goal line, someone perfect form tackled, knocked the ball up, saw it go up in the air, just jumped on top of it immediately, had guys jumping in. It’s a crazy feeling, but we came out with it. Got the touchdown. Won the game,” Cooper said.
The Knights finish the regular season 6-1 in TEC play, 7-2 overall, and share the TEC title with Winchester, which beat Centerville 47-19.
“I’m thrilled for these boys, because they worked so hard,” emotional Northeastern coach Mike Roeder said. ” … We talked all week about standing on the shoulders of others and I want to say that this team knows the history. We talk a lot about it. But there has been a lot of football players that have come onto this field since 1976 and they understand that, even though it may not have been successful wins and loss-wise, they understand that they stand on the shoulders of all these other guys that have come in the past. They know that. They honored them by what they did tonight.”
The team standing on the other side of the field Friday was determined to play spoiler.
The Union City Indians have been favorites to win the TEC the past three years, but have come up short.
On Friday, they held a 14-point lead heading into the final quarter.
Mason Wine scored on an 8-yard run with 9:23 left in the second quarter and Kyle Anguiano punched in from a yard out 1:50 before halftime.
The Indians (5-3, 4-3) stymied the Knight offense all night, limiting Kirkland, the TEC’s leading rusher to just 19 yards on nine carries.
They recovered a Knight fumble in the first half, forced various three-and-outs and recovered a squib kick late in the second quarter.
They very easily could have led 21-0, faking a field goal to end the first half, but just missing a pass in the end zone.
“Their linebackers were really good,” Claypoole said. “They were shutting up our holes. They were filling gaps and we really didn’t have an answer for it at the beginning. And the second half, we just came out (and) we showed we had heart.”
Wine had 28 carries for 149 yards, while Anguiano had 19 for 55 and Jayden Baker a pair for 60.
Taylor Moore had 45 passing yards for the Indians.
Jake Slinker caught a 15-yard touchdown pass to finally put Northeastern on the board with 11:30 left in the final quarter, and the Indians continued to control the clock.
However, the big stop, also coming from Cooper late in the game, gave the Knights a chance at their final drive.
The Indians had a fourth-and-3 situation and decided to go for it, but Cooper stopped Wine short of the first down.
“When it came down to the big plays at the end, we didn’t make them. It was fourth-and-3, needed a first down, and we didn’t make it,” Union City coach Keith Maloy said.
Tyler Sandlin, J.J. Fleming and Claypoole had key plays in the final drive, before Kirkland and Cooper had the storybook ending.
Sandlin had four catches, including two great diving plays, for 89 yards, while Claypoole completed eight passes for 128 yards and ran for 52 yards.
Sandlin and Claypoole each had an interception for the Knights.
“I saw a hole. I dove for it, stuck the ball out, thought I crossed, but (it) got knocked out, and my heart dropped suddenly,” Kirkland said. “Then I saw the pile and I thought Union City saw it at first. I started grieving, and Lareland Cooper picked it up, and they signaled touchdown and my heart jumped.”
As did the big crowd on hand for the Knights, while chanting “T-E-C, T-E-C.”