By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ELWOOD, Ind. —
Jared Bourff took one look at the sophomore running back starting in the backfield and knew he was watching something special.
"He kinda stepped up," Elwood's senior tight end said. "He was playing against 18- and 19-year-olds, and he's only 16 years old. I'm thinking he's only going to get better from here. For the seniors, that's kinda when it hit a lot of us."
Two years later — with two 2,000-yard rushing seasons already to his credit — Sammy Mireles is closing in on the state career rushing record. He needs 211 yards Friday night at Alexandria to surpass former Cathedral star Otis Shannon's total of 7,560.
It's a moment Panthers coach Marty Wells said no one in the program could have seen coming. But Mireles certainly provided some clues along the way.
He rushed for 2,071 yards during that sophomore season that helped open Bourff's eyes. And he added 2,460 more as a junior.
Through eight games this season, Mireles sits at 1,959 yards and the Panthers are 5-3. A victory against the rival Tigers would clinch a second-place finish in the Central Indiana Conference and set Elwood up for what it hopes will be a deep postseason run.
Much of the success, of course, can be attributed to the record-chasing running back.
"He's always carried this team throughout the years," senior wide receiver London Leavell said. "He's carried us through a lot of tough wins."
Mireles' presence opens opportunities for his teammates. Leavell scored Elwood's first touchdown last week against Frankton when Mireles' brother, quarterback Alex, fired a 25-yard strike over the top of the Eagles' defense.
It's a common practice against the eight- and nine-man fronts the Panthers routinely face.
"It's no secret we're gonna run the ball," junior center Jacob Nutt said. "It kinda helps us throw it over their heads to London. Then we just give it back to Sammy, and he does what he does best."
Assistant coach Trevor Ozenbaugh was the starting tailback during Mireles' freshman season. He also held the school's career rushing record before Mireles broke it two years later.
Ozenbaugh now serves as Mireles' position coach, and he credits the running back's work ethic for much of his success. But he's not surprised by the heights Mireles has reached.
"I knew he had high expectations," Ozenbaugh said. "And I knew what he was capable of coming into high school."
Several teammates talked about the leadership Mireles provides. He's the team's hardest worker, and he motivates others to reach their potential in the weight room.
On the field, he's not a screamer. He's more likely after a bad play to walk up behind the offending player and offer encouragement before the next snap.
"He's always got a smile on his face," Bourff said. "He's probably one of the hardest workers you'll ever come around. He always finds ways to get better, get stronger."
That drive has pushed Elwood to new heights.
And there is hope the attention the record pursuit is generating will have a positive impact on Elwood's program for the future.
"Elwood's kind of hit and miss with football," Ozenbaugh said, referring to the number of players who come out for the team each year. "Hopefully, with this record, it gets us back on the map for football and makes little kids coming up set their goals as high as a state record."
Leavell calls Mireles one of the most positive kids he's ever been around, and that no doubt has an impact on the family dynamic the Panthers enjoy.
The rushing record might be an individual honor, but Mireles is far from alone in the chase.
"Everybody feels like they're a part of it here," Leavell said.