FOUNTAIN CITY, Ind.
Monroe Central was getting all the breaks in the first half.
One they didn’t get though, was Kelsy Kirkland’s positioning on the field.
With the Golden Bears looking to break a scoreless tie in the second quarter, Kirkland was in the right place at the right time.
Northeastern High School’s all-time leading rusher intercepted a pass inside the Knights’ 10-yard line and returned it an unofficial 62 yards to set up the first score of the game.
Joey Claypoole connected with Lareland Cooper, momentum swayed Northeastern’s way, and the Knights pulled away in the second half, defeating Monroe Central 28-7 in a semifinal of IHSAA Class A Sectional 45.
The Knights (9-2) will play host to Eastern Hancock (11-0), a 62-0 winner over Lincoln, next Friday in the championship game.
It’s Northeastern’s third sectional championship appearance since 2007 and the Knights have won at least one sectional game every year since then.
“It’s awesome and it’s awesome that we’re doing it here,” Northeastern coach Mike Roeder said. “The kids are excited. It’s been a nice year so far, and we’re still playing. We said to them, ‘Their seniors were crying at the end of that game, our seniors are not, and that’s the way we want to keep it. We want to play.'”
The Knights improve to 9-2, winning the most games since 2007, when they went 10-2.
A young Monroe Central program concludes a 6-5 year, its first winning season in its four-year history, and the Golden Bears won a sectional game for the first time in program history.
“This is our granite right here,” Bears coach John Hochstetler said. “This is our blocks of granite, we call them, the senior class, winning the sectional game, having a winning season. From here on, we’ll look to take the next step, but tonight, we’re celebrating what they did for us.”
They looked like they were headed to a second, the way things went early in the game.
The Bears got eight first downs in the first half and controlled the clock, getting into the red zone various times.
However, the Knight defense stepped up, getting big stops, including quarterback sacks by Quest Schwab, freshman Chace Mosley and Cooper.
“They get big stops,” Hochstetler said. “When you boil this game down, up front, they were a lot better than us tackle to tackle — and other places, but the other places we matched up somewhat, not there.
“We kind of got the breaks we needed, and then … we needed to be able to run the football, not a lot, but enough to where we wouldn’t take all that heat. That drive to start the game when they turned it over and we couldn’t get the big play, there we are.”
Cooper caught a 19-yard pass from Claypoole with 2:17 left before halftime, and the Knights took the 6-0 lead into the locker room.
“Honestly, we don’t throw that 10-yard drag very often, so they weren’t expecting it,” Cooper said. “I caught it, ran a couple yards and I think the quarterback, No. 4 (Bracken Barga), took me out at the knees. But I just barely got over the line, almost fumbled it, honestly, but it’s all good.”
The Knights went for it on fourth-and-2 with 3:23 left and, when Claypoole saw no open receivers, he scrambled to the sideline, found a hole and scored from 22 yards out to make it 12-0. Then he connected with Tyler Sandlin for the 2-point conversion.
Kirkland scored from 13 yards out early in the final frame and J.J. Fleming added a 17-yard trot into the end zone.
Tyler Welch caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Barga with about 45 seconds to play to put Monroe Central on the board.
“They’re a good team. We told everybody; they wouldn’t listen to us,” Roeder said. ” … For them to make it to the semifinals like that, we knew they were going to be good. They got some really good athletes on that squad.
“What happened in that first half is that our defense kind of just wore them down. Some really big hits that kind of took it out of them. And … they had it in the red zone maybe three or four times, and we held them. This is a defensive win tonight.”
Offensively, Claypoole completed three passes for 46 yards, with Kirkland catching two of them for 27 yards.
Kirkland, a junior, led the running game a week after setting the school’s career mark for rushing yards. He had 13 carries for 87 yards, while Claypoole had seven for 81, all in the second half.
“Our defense stepped up when our offense didn’t. Finally our offense picked up the pace at the end,” Kirkland said.