Charlestown football coach Darin Ward, wanting the Pirates to avoid a letdown following their upset of No.2 Brownstown in last week’s Class 3-A sectional semifinal, stressed the approach as “business as usual” for the Sectional 31 final.
That’s hardly the case at North Harrison. Playing for a sectional championship is not an every-year occurrence — not even an every-decade phenomenon — for the Cougars.
North Harrison will compete in its first sectional final since 2005 and attempt to win the first championship in school history on Friday night when the Cougars (4-6) host the No.15 Pirates (9-2) in a rematch of Mid-Southern Conference rivals.
The roles are easily defined. Charlestown is the obvious favorite, already owning a 47-20 victory over North Harrison during the regular season. Both teams favor the smash-mouth approach of running the football. It’s a game that just needs an NFL films voice-over, and a frozen tundra, to conjure up the images of old-school toughness.
“That’s what we do,” said North Harrison coach Mark Williamson, whose team has attempted only 45 passes this season. “That’s our strength. We’re in our comfort zone when we line up and try to knock you off the football.”
Junior running back Sam Best (1,665 yards, 13 touchdowns) makes defenders uncomfortable. He’s the workhorse, averaging 24 carries per game, and he gets a break from junior Austin Nevil (749 yards, 8 TDs).
Charlestown is also run-oriented but has better balance. Sophomore running back Antonyo Gaddie (1,162 yards, 12 TDs) leads the ground assault. When he went down with an injury early in the first North Harrison game, quarterback Tristan Chester took up the slack with 237 passing yards and four scores. Chester has 1,334 passing yards and 13 TDs.
“We’re winning ugly,” Ward said. “We’re not a team that’s going to put 60 points on somebody, we’re not built that way. I just think we’re built to play a little ugly and drag it out, play the bend-but-don’t-break defense. I think it’s successful football.
“We’ve been in games where every possession is important. I don’t think our guys let up. That’s how we’re wired to play.”
Charlestown has had the tougher route to the final with tournament wins over Corydon (15-6) and Brownstown (27-16). The Pirates have also won four sectional titles — the last in 2012 — and Ward owns a sectional title from his stint as Corydon’s coach.
“The seniors understand the process, how you prepare,” Ward said. “I think their expectations are high. And I would like to think my track record shows we try to build teams for the tournament, so we’re able to play in adverse situations.
“We understand the opportunity in front of us. We have stressed to the kids that we need to continue to play our best football as we work through the tournament. We can’t afford any letdowns.”
North Harrison’s game plan is basic: lengthen offensive possessions, shorten the game and force turnovers. Charlestown had three turnovers in the first game but roared back with big-strike plays by Eli Daniel (two interceptions and a fumble recovery on defense, plus a 58-yard touchdown catch).
“I think they’re the most physical team in the conference,” Williamson said. “They hit. They can pound you, and they can spread you out to get you in space. When we played them the first time, I felt they were the best football team we had seen since I’ve been at North Harrison, the most complete team. So we have a big task to win this game.
“We’ll play hard. Our kids won’t roll over. We can’t put the ball on the ground, we can’t have pre-snap penalties. We are going to slow the game down and try to turn it into an eight-possession game. We have to live to play another down and make them earn their scores.”
Charlestown is playing its first tournament road game.
“We’re expecting their best,” Williamson said. “They’re playing for a title. Those don’t come around every year. So we’re not expecting a letdown. We’re expecting their best shot, and we’ll play our best. If that’s good enough, we’ll win. If not, we’ll go back at it next year.”
Justin Sokeland can be reached at (502) 582-4059.
Charlestown (9-2) at North Harrison (4-6)
Class 3-A Sectional 31
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
The No.15 Pirates won the regular-season game 47-20 on Sept. 12.
• The Cougars have never won a sectional title. They are making their first appearance in a sectional final since 2005. Charlestown has won four sectionals, the last in 2012. Charlestown coach Darin Ward won a sectional with Corydon in 2011.
• Charlestown overcame three early turnovers to win the first meeting. Charlestown star Antonyo Gaddie left with an injury after only two carries.
• The winner will play either No.6 Heritage Hills (10-1) or No.4 Gibson Southern (10-1) in the regional. Charlestown will host either possible matchup. North Harrison would host Gibson Southern or visit Heritage Hills.
• ” If we can be physical on the line of scrimmage, we match up really well with them.” – Charlestown coach Darin Ward
Pick: Charlestown 41-14