Little did he know it at the time, but Chris Geesman saw the future on the Hoosier Dome turf on Nov. 30, 1991.
It was actually the end of a five-year era of dominance for Ben Davis, which won four Class 5A titles during that time under coach Dick Dullaghan. Geesman, already with a state title under his belt in 1983, was deep into a 30-year career at Penn as he turned the Kingsmen into a state power.
On the field that day, though, Ben Davis crushed Penn, 38-14, in the Class 5A championship. It wasn’t even that close. On the bus ride home, Geesman had a crazy thought.
“Get better, or get used to it,” Geesman said. “We have to find a way to get them on the schedule.”
It didn’t happen until 1996, but for the next 15 seasons Penn and Ben Davis locked horns in one of the state’s best regular-season rivalries. Penn won state titles in 1995, ’96, ’97 and 2000, a fact Geesman attributes in large part due those measuring-stick games against Ben Davis.
“We knew we needed to see that kind of competition,” Geesman said.
More than a decade later, the Indianapolis-area powers like Ben Davis and other Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference brethren rule Indiana high school football. The gap between the best in Central Indiana and the rest of the state continues to grow.
The proof is in the numbers: from 1973 to ’82, under a three-class system, 18 of the 60 teams to appear in the state championship (30 percent) came from Central Indiana; from 1983 to 2002, under a four-class system (for two years) and later a five-class system, 66-of-196 state finalists (34 percent) came from the area.
But since 2003, the shift of power has been dramatic. Of the 102 teams to play for a state title, 55 have come from Central Indiana (54 percent).
There hasn’t been a program outside of the Indianapolis area win a state 5A or 6A title since Penn in 2000. Meanwhile, local private school powers like Cathedral, Bishop Chatard and Cardinal Ritter have dominated the smaller classes, along with Bud Wright at Sheridan.
“I think a lot of it is because of what the MIC has done,” said Avon coach Mark Bless. “Over time, their success has helped elevate other schools like Hamilton Southeastern, Fishers and us because we know we have to raise our performance if we’re going to have an opportunity to play for a state championship.”
Veteran coaches point to a few reasons for the increase in championship teams in Central Indiana:
The MIC: Ben Davis, Carmel and Warren Central all had multiple championships prior to becoming founding members of the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference in 1996. Ben Davis was the dominant team early on, but Warren Central rose to power and was followed by Carmel and Center Grove in winning state titles.
Since 2001, the MIC has 11-of-13 titles in the state’s largest class. The other two were won by Fishers and Lawrence Central, and the latter is now a member of the MIC.
Mo Moriarity came to Carmel in 2005 after a three-year stint as an assistant at Indiana. The Greyhounds were a solid program but hadn’t advanced beyond the regional in a decade.
“When I went there to interview for the job, I think they really doubted if they could compete in the MIC,” Moriarity said. “They knew some changes needed to be made.”
Under Moriarity, who is now at Bloomington South, and Kevin Wright, Carmel has reached the state championship game in six of the last eight years and won it twice.
“It’s like the SEC in college football,” Moriarity said of the MIC. “The MIC really exploded while I was at IU and then it just continued. It’s so doggone good that it forces you to get better.”
Facilities and resources: The facilities arms race has slowed some in recent years due to the economy and tightening budgets, but a 2008 study by the Star showed that 12 Class 5A programs spent $19.7 million on facilities over a five-year period. Those teams won 63 percent of their games over a three-year stretch. The eight local 5A programs that spent a combined $2.9 million on facilities won just 43 percent of their games.
There is a direct correlation from the money spent to success on the field. That also ties in with what parents and athletes choose to do on their own.
“When I was at Mooresville we had assistant coaches come in from outside the area and they were amazed at how much we did in the offseason,” Bless said. “It wasn’t just with football, but what we did with weight training. A lot of parents were willing to go out and get trainers or have their kids work out at sports performance facilities. There are more avenues to pursue those things around here (Indianapolis) than other places.”
Population growth: The tournament looks far different in 2014 than it did the first year the Indiana High School Athletic Association offered it in 1973. Of the 107 teams to compete in Class 3A (the largest class) that first year, 24 were from Central Indiana. The landscape was far different then, as the migration to the township and suburban schools hadn’t taken hold. Nearly half (11) of the 24 schools in 3A in 1973 were Indianapolis Public School programs.
Of the 18 largest schools in 1973, eight were from Central Indiana. Others were spread across the state, including Gary Roosevelt and West Side, Lafayette Jeff, Marion, Columbus North, Evansville Central, Richmond and Terre Haute North.
In 2014, 17 of the 32 teams in Class 6A are from the area and 15 of the 20 schools with the largest enrollment come from Central Indiana.
Penn is the fifth-largest school but only plays one other school in top 10 in enrollment (Portage) during the regular season.
“Our program is probably as strong as it’s ever been,” Geesman said. “Corey Yeoman (118 wins in 11 years) has done a great job. If Penn could play in the MIC, which isn’t logistically possible, I think we’d be a contender for the state championship every year even though our regular seasons might not be as good.”
It remains to be seen how the IHSAA’s tournament success factor could impact the numbers. Cathedral has already bumped up one class to 5A and could vault to 6A if it wins a regional this fall. Bishop Chatard lost in a regional after moving up to 4A, as did Scecina after moving to 2A.
In the largest class, Indianapolis has the muscle, which can make it difficult for programs like Penn. Geesman looks back to 1996, when Penn lost to Ben Davis 24-0 and saw its 89-game winning streak come to an end.
Seven weeks later, Penn won the rematch 17-14 in the 5A state championship.
“If that had been the first time we’d seen then, we’d have lost 24-0,” Geesman said. “We weren’t used to seeing a team play that fast. We had to see it first, then realize we could play at that tempo.”
As programs outside Central Indiana are finding out: get up to speed, or get left in the dust.
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.