Mike Roeder had a feeling Kelsy Kirkland could be special, but who knew?
Tim Mangas was such a mainstay in Northeastern’s running game, and the Knights were making a run at the sectional championship in 2011, Kirkland’s freshman year.
Mangas finished his career that fall as the leading rusher in Northeastern High School’s football history, with the most yards in a game, season and career.
But he knew.
While looking back at his career, the 2011 Palladium-Item Football Player of the Year selection mentioned Kirkland’s name.
Tyler Sandlin’s too.
He knew his program was on the rise and his record would not last long.
Two years, to be exact.
Kirkland recently became the all-time leading rusher in Northeastern High School history, breaking Mangas’ mark of 3,100 yards in a career.
“When he was a freshman and he got to play a little bit when Tim Mangas hurt his knee there towards the end of the season, there was just something about him,” said Roeder, Northeastern’s head coach.
“He had a little burst that you don’t see all the time. (Assistant) Ed Claypoole and I both looked at him and looked at each other and said, ‘He’s got some potential.’ … He just continues to chug on.”
Kirkland set the standard despite missing time this season — and, he still has plenty of time raise it.
He is currently a junior, and his team is looking to continue a historic season.
The Knights won a piece of the Tri-Eastern Conference football title for the first time in program history, sharing it with Winchester. Both finished with 6-1 records, while Northeastern won the head-to-head match-up 28-14 in Week 2.
They are also headed to a third sectional title game in the past six years. They host Class A No. 4-ranked Eastern Hancock in Friday’s championship of IHSAA Class A Sectional 45.
“I’ve got next year, so I’m not really thinking much about (the record) until the end of next year,” Kirkland said following his team’s 28-7 semifinal victory over Monroe Central.
Kirkland has 3,192 total rushing yards with a year left to play, plus whatever remains of this year.
So far, he has 1,542 this season, 242 shy of the single-season mark of 1,784.
He also has 16 rushing touchdowns, two receiving and 13 catches for 218 yards in the Knights’ run-first offense.
“One of the reasons we love that kid is because he comes out every practice and works as hard as he can, and that’s just something you don’t see a whole heck of a lot of anymore,” Roeder said. “… He’s the hardest working kid we have. He’s a great kid, top of his class, very polite kid, too.”
Kirkland’s also a force defensively, leading the Knights with 146 tackles, including 83 solo, and he gave the Knights a momentum boost with a key interception last Friday, which he returned an unofficial 62 yards from Monroe Central’s red zone to set up the Knights’ first score.
“That’s Kelsy Kirkland. Our offense was struggling a little bit. He was having trouble getting going and our offense was sputtering and he picked us up on the defensive side and put us into the position where we could score,” Roeder said.
Kirkland returned the ball to Monroe Central’s 19-yard line, Lareland Cooper quickly caught a touchdown pass, and the Knights eventually led 28-0.
“I caught the ball, and I saw daylight,” Kirkland said. “I thought pick-six immediately, but I saw the blockers in front of me, and I just followed them and (Monroe Central) tracked me down. But we scored after that and changed the momentum of the entire game.”
Northeastern is far from a one-man team, though.
Quarterback Joey Claypoole has 12 passing touchdowns, 48 completions, 902 passing yards, 524 rushing yards, six rushing scores and seven interceptions on defense; Sandlin has 535 yards and six touchdowns rushing, 487 yards and seven touchdowns receiving and five interceptions; J.J. Fleming has 566 yards and eight touchdowns rushing, 77 yards and a score receiving, 84 total tackles and five sacks; Cooper has eight sacks, 76 total tackles and a very important fumble recovery in the end zone as time expired against Union City, which tied the game allowing the Knights to clinch their first TEC title.
“(Kirkland’s) one of the hardest working kids, but what’s made this season as special as it has been is because we have about, nine, 10, 11, 12 kids that work as hard as him, and it’s because of him,” Roeder said. “The example that I think these younger kids are seeing is the key: Work hard, and it pays off.”