WESTFIELD – As Harrison’s football team broke its postgame huddle Friday night, joyous emotion rang clear 20 yards behind.
Westfield, last year’s 5A runner-up, celebrated, taking photos with the Sectional 11 championship trophy following a hard-earned 45-24 victory over the Raiders at Stanley Stadium.
Harrison defensive lineman Brett Spitznagle didn’t get a trophy. The 6-foot, 230-pound senior did walk off the field with something that will mean more than he knows years down the road.
“This season is by far the most fun season I’ve ever played,” said Spitznagle, one of 20 Harrison seniors who got to go out with a winning season. “The experience of winning; we were lucky enough to win seven this year. It feels great.”
Harrison’s football program was ridiculed for years, scarred from the embarrassment of 38 straight losses after a Week 2 drubbing at Western Boone this season. Many of those losses weren’t close as Harrison brought up the rear of the Hoosier Crossroads Conference before a shift to a new league this season.
Down 35-7 at halftime Friday night in its first sectional championship appearance since 2008, it looked like the same old Harrison story. But the 2014 version, under first-year coach Terry Peebles, was different.
Westfield coach Jake Gilbert knew it. He’d seen Peebles’ magic as a standout quarterback at Cathedral and Hanover College. Gilbert was a linebacker at Ben Davis and Wabash College, and the two went head to head on the gridiron.
“I think their coaches are fantastic and I have known coach Peebles for years. He knows what he is doing,” Gilbert said. “He was an even better player than a coach, and he is a fantastic coach. As they get a little better physically, they are going to be really good.”
On Friday, the Shamrocks (7-4) overcame a couple of lost fumbles that kept Harrison’s hope of its first sectional title in 20 years alive. But in the end, there was too much Elvin Caldwell, who rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
The Raiders (7-4), who won seven of nine to end the season after that 38th consecutive loss on Aug. 29, one week after Harrison fell to Westfield in the season opener.
Down 28-0 after losing two fumbles, including Matt Crupi’s 24-yard touchdown return on a batted option pitch, Silas Jensen’s 4-yard reception from JDan Sturgeon finally gave the Raiders confidence.
It was quickly squelched when Westfield needed just 1:07 to go 62 yards. Ryan Pepiot’s 2-yard keeper right before halftime — the third touchdown run by a quarterback after Andrew Sweet, who started in place of the injured Pepiot last week, scored the game’s first two TDs on the ground.
“Our first two drives didn’t start out well and we had a fumble, but we knew we could drive the ball,” said Jensen, a senior who missed his junior year with an elbow injury. “Driving down there and getting that first touchdown, that was the spark we needed.”
Harrison came out of the intermission a different team, remembering a 35-point second half against Kokomo earlier this season and knowing the capability was there to put a lot of points on the board.
The Raiders scored after Colin Zeh recovered a fumble on a punt return, converting two fourth downs before Sturgeon connected with Jacob Chase for a 14-yard score.
Eighteen seconds later, Harrison cut the lead to 14 after a forced fumble was picked up by Jeep Morehouse and Chase threw a 22-yard strike to Cameron Greene on a trick play. Field goals of 22 yards by Nick Dowd and Daniel Madren offset, but Caldwell’s 5-yard run with 2:41 to go put the game out of reach.
“With the bye week, it’s been a while since we’ve been tested, since the Fishers game (on Oct. 10), so it was good to be in that situation and we strived and closed it out,” Gilbert said. “I was happy with our kids.”