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Elwood running back Sammy Merles sheds his shoe during a run last week against Frankton.

It was Week 3 last season, and Elwood was opening the Central Indiana Conference portion of its football schedule at Alexandria.

Panthers head coach Marty Wells knew Tigers quarterback Randi Kirkland could throw the ball, and he knew Alexandria head coach Pete Gast would let him do so early and often.

But Elwood didn’t account for the damage Kirkland could do with his legs.

The dual-threat quarterback gained 288 total yards — 183 passing and 105 rushing — and accounted for four touchdowns in the Tigers’ runaway 42-24 victory.

“A lot of it was their quarterback,” Wells said earlier this week, still with a hint of sting from the loss in his voice, “and a lot of it was our guys’ inability to stop anything they tried to do.”

The two schools meet again today in Elwood with the Panthers one win away from their first outright CIC title since 2000. Elwood (6-2, 6-0 CIC) can do no worse than a tie with Oak Hill (7-1, 5-1) atop the league standings no matter the outcome tonight.

Alexandria (3-5, 1-5), coming off its first CIC win last week, is left to play spoiler.

The Tigers lost a large senior class last season, and not all of their juniors returned this year. That’s left Gast playing more sophomores on a regular basis than he’s comfortable with, but the hope is the lessons learned this season will pay dividends the next two years.

That process would get a huge jump-start with an upset of the Panthers tonight.

“It’s almost like we have a totally different roster,” Gast said, dismissing the value of last year’s win. “We have a lot of young guys that did not play major roles in that victory last year. But I do feel we match up well.”

Still running a spread attack, the Tigers remain a threat in the passing game. Sophomore quarterback Blaize Kelly has thrown for 1,426 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions this season. His prime targets are junior Drew Johnson (35 catches, 507 yards, three touchdowns) and sophomore Jonah Jerrils (18, 372, 2).

Elwood hasn’t seen a team that likes to throw the ball as often as Alexandria this season. Oak Hill probably comes the closest, and the Golden Eagles put up 36 points in a seven-point loss to the Panthers two weeks ago.

“They like to do it (pass) a lot,” Wells said. “They do a lot of good things in the passing game.”

Elwood will answer with a more balanced attack than it often gets credit for.

Junior tailback Sammy Mireles again is among the state leaders with 1,698 rushing yards, and he has scored 15 touchdowns. Mireles needs 302 yards rushing to record his second consecutive 2,000-yard season, and he’s averaging 212.3 yards per game. The Panthers, who will open the sectional next week at Madison-Grant, are guaranteed at least two more games this year.

“First of all, we have to tackle well,” Gast said of defending Mireles. “He sheds a lot of tackles, and he has great balance. The first guy, if he doesn’t wrap him up, Sammy just shakes him off and keeps his feet moving.”

But Gast knows he can’t overload his defense against Mireles.

Senior quarterback Austin Dauenhauer has attempted just 58 passes, but he makes them count. Dauenhauer has completed 59 percent of his throws for 731 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He averages 12.6 yards per attempt, and his 70-yard completion set up the Panthers’ first score last week at Frankton.

“When they need to hurt people with the pass, they can,” Gast said. “We’re not going to sell out against Sammy Mireles.”

There’s plenty of history between these two schools, whose towns rest just 12 miles apart along Indiana 28. Along with Tipton, who has since left the conference, they were two of the three founding members of the CIC in 1932.

It always seems to be a special game when Elwood and Alexandria get together. But this year, with the conference crown on the line for the Panthers, is unique.

A win, Wells said, will put this team’s picture on the wall at the high school. In 15 or 20 years, these players can come back and show their children what they were able to accomplish tonight.

“We talked to the kids about this not being about Alexandria,” Wells said. “This is all about the Elwood Panthers. This game’s about forever.”

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