ANDERSON — With one big goal in the history books, the Elwood football team can focus on the top item on its 2013 checklist: Winning its first sectional title in 13 years.
To accomplish that feat, the Panthers (6-3) must survive the area’s most competitive postseason field. Four other members of the Central Indiana Conference are in the Class 2A, Sectional 36 draw. And the race for the championship appears to be wide open.
“A lot of teams feel like they have a chance,” Alexandria coach Pete Gast said. “That’s not always been the case with the sectional.”
Missing a super team from the Indianapolis area, this field has the feel of old friends getting back together.
Elwood and Oak Hill (6-3) are the prohibitive favorites, with the Panthers using a 2-point conversion to win the regular-season meeting 29-28 in overtime on Oct. 4. Gast’s Tigers (6-3) aren’t far behind, losing to Oak Hill 14-7 in overtime on Sept. 20 and falling in a 49-42 thriller against Elwood last week.
Alexandria and record-setting quarterback Blaize Kelly (1,948 yards, 22 touchdowns) open tonight at home against Frankton (1-8). The Eagles lost a CIC battle between the schools 48-14 on Sept. 27 but led early and stayed in the contest throughout the first half.
“We’ve gotta win the first quarter,” Gast said. “We’ll make that our goal, and the rest will fall into place.”
Oak Hill travels to Madison-Grant (3-6) in another CIC first-round rematch. The Argylls hung tight for most of three quarters before falling to the Golden Eagles 48-23 at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sept. 7.
Both teams rely on the running game. Madison-Grant is led by Cam Myers (1,319 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) and Luke Stroup (941, 17) while Oak Hill answers with Zach Daniels (900, 13) and Derrick Randall (804, 7).
But when it comes to rushing, nobody beats Elwood.
Senior tailback Sammy Mireles surpassed Otis Shannon’s 13-year-old state career rushing record last week and needs 307 yards to become the first player in Indiana history to reach the 8,000 mark.
He has 2,302 yards and 33 touchdowns on 198 carries this season and needs 159 yards to surpass his own single-season school record.
Mireles will chase those yards against a Lapel team that features a similar offensive attack to the one Alexandria used to give the Panthers fits last week.
Junior quarterback Brady Cherry offers a similar passing arm to Kelly and adds a rushing factor. Elwood coach Marty Wells said that will put added stress on his defensive backs, who must stay with their receivers in coverage while remaining aware of Cherry’s penchant to escape the pocket.
Alexandria had success with quick, low-risk passes to keep drives alive and move the chains.
“They did control the clock passing the football,” Lapel coach Tim Miller said after watching tape of the game. “They threw the ball 50-some times (57), but they didn’t get impatient with it. Which is something we’ve struggled with at times this season.”
Elwood is excited about the chance to face an unfamiliar foe. Lapel (3-6) plays a 4-3 defense, and this is the first time the Panthers have faced that scheme this season.
Wells said the Bulldogs are better than their record after playing in the tough Indiana Crossroads Conference.
“They’ve played Speedway, Scecina, Tri-Central, Lutheran, a lot of good teams,” Wells said. “Sometimes records can be deceiving in that regard.”
The Elwood-Lapel winner will meet Alexandria or Frankton in next week’s semifinals, with the Madison-Grant-Oak Hill winner taking on either Eastern (2-7) or Bluffton (4-5) on the other side of the bracket.
However things play out, almost everyone involved is expecting an exciting three-week event.
“I think if you interviewed all eight coaches in the sectional,” Wells said, “all of them except maybe one or two think they have a chance to win it.”