“Offense looks pretty, but defense wins championships.”
The old adage perfectly summed up Eastbrook’s semi-state bout with Andrean on Friday night.
For 48 minutes, the Eastbrook defense, led by a host of sophomores, put on a clinic.
“All 11 of them out there were just great,” Eastbrook Head Coach Jeff Adamson said. “We were giving up a ton of size, and guys just never backed down. It just seemed like they fought every play.”
They made big plays in crucial moments throughout the contest.
They forced several key turnovers when it felt like the momentum might have been shifting.
And they shut down a high-powered Fighting 59ers’ offense, punching their ticket to their third Class 2A State Championship game in the last four years.
“We just knew what we had to do to end up getting the win,” sophomore running back/safety Isaiah Dalton said. “We’d never get down on ourselves, even when we faced adversity. We’ve been coached that all year long, so we were just ready to step it up and take on any challenges in our way, and we did exactly that.”
After falling behind early, the Panthers scored 20 unanswered points and never gave the lead back, defeating the Fighting 59ers by a score of 26-14.
“It was a different guy every play,” Eastbrook Head Coach Jeff Adamson said. “The defensive linemen played great. The linebackers and the secondary got a couple of key turnovers when they needed to. The offense put them in a bind at the start of the game, but they hung tight and made the plays when they needed to, especially in the second half. They were stellar.”
Eastbrook’s top four tacklers – middle linebacker Jason Hale, defensive end Braxton Bowser, outside linebacker Logan Collins, and Dalton – are all sophomores. Dalton had a fumble recovery for a touchdown, one of his four on the night, while Hale recorded an interception. Bowser collected two sacks in the contest.
This is a young group, one that came into the season with a plethora of inexperience.
But on Friday night, they didn’t play like 15-16 year old boys. They played like men.
And after Eastbrook lost their first two games of the season, Eastbrook’s tremendous sophomore core helped them to turn their season around – and get them back to Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s unbelievable,” senior strong safety Jackson Ailstock said. “All of the sophomores have done great, and it’s the juniors too – they’ve really stepped up this year. We’ve given them a great show of what’s right [and] what’s the right work ethic, and they’ve started to follow it. It showed over the season.”
The defense had to go to work early, because the Eastbrook offense struggled to start the contest. Their first possession ended with a blocked punt, setting the 59ers up at the Eastbrook 27-yard line.
On their next series, an interception by Bragg, his first of the year, gave the 59ers great field position for the second time in as many drives.
The Panthers gave up just seven points – a nine yard touchdown pass from Andrean quarterback Noah Hamilton to wide receiver Nicholas Flesher.
“We just came out thinking we were going to dominate,” Hale said. “We kept that mentality, and we kept the intensity high, and we came out and did what we do.”
Andrean held the lead for just four plays. On first-and-10 from their own 31-yard line, Dalton burst through the Fighting 59ers’ defensive front, reaching the second level and scampering 69 yards, untouched, to tie the game at 7-7.
That play changed the momentum of the game, and after that, the Panthers never trailed again.
Eastbrook added to their lead on the first play of the second quarter, as Dalton forced an Andrean fumble and returned it 25 yards for the score to give Eastbrook a 14-7 lead.
“We know what it takes and what we need,” Ailstock said. “I know all 11 of us, at any time, will do what it takes.”
After holding the Fighting 59ers to a three-and-out after their defensive score, the Eastbrook offense put together their most efficient drive of the night. Over the course of 14 plays, 71 yards, and nearly five minutes of game time, the Panthers drove down the field methodically, eating up chunks of yards before Dalton scored his second rushing touchdown from six yards out to increase Eastbrook’s advantage to 20-7.
“Our offensive line was doing it up in front of him,” Adamson said. “It just seemed like when his number was called, he was answering.”
Andrean had a chance to come away with points before the end of the half, and were helped out by a crucial roughing the kicker call on fourth down.
But once again, the Eastbrook defense had the answer, as Wyatt Stephenson recorded a 10-yard sack of Hamilton to effectively knock them out of field goal. The Fighting 59ers promptly missed their ensuing field goal attempt, preserving their 13-point lead heading into halftime.
In the first half, the Panthers held Andrean to just 72 yards of total offense. Fighting 59ers’ star running back Ryan Walsh, who came into the game with 2,132 rushing yards, 27 touchdowns, and an 8.6 yards per carry average, was held to just 32 yards in the first two quarters.
And the Eastbrook defense was not done making plays.
With Andrean driving into Panthers territory on their first drive of the second half, a Hamilton pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, and Hale made the play, securing the interception.
On the Fighting 59ers’ next drive, the Panthers forced another fumble, and Collins recovered the ball deep in Andrean territory.
The Panthers ended up giving it right back with a fumble of their own, but they held firm one more time, stopping the 59ers on fourth down.
“We knew the defense always had to come up big,” Dalton said. “They’ve done it all year. After that first half, we knew the defense wasn’t allowing another score and that it was our game. We just really stepped it up and we knew what we had to do, and we got it done.”
Andrean did end up scoring on the Panthers late in the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass from Hamilton to Dominic DiTola, but took 7:39 off the clock in the process, giving Eastbrook a chance to put the game away.
And they did.
Six plays after Andrean’s score, Dalton found the end zone for the fourth time, icing the contest with a 34-yard touchdown.
“I love my hogs – they are always there for me,” Dalton said. “They had a hard week of practice. Whenever we [got] closer to the end…we knew our hogs were going to drive us back and help us get those last few first downs to win the game.”
The Panthers started the season with a pair of losses – a 35-19 defeat to Marion and a 44-7 shellacking at the hands of Delta.
But instead of letting those losses define them, it only drove the Panthers to work harder and go that extra mile in order to be great.
“After that, we were like, ‘Okay, we’re tired of losing and everyone doubting us,’” Ailstock said. “And this is what is has led too.”
The result? A 12 game win-streak, their fourth straight regional title, and now, their second straight semi-state championship.
“In the Marion game, we felt like that was the game that was going to make us better,” Adamson said. “But after the Delta game, it didn’t feel that way. The seniors – that’s when they really started asserting their leadership. It was all positive, but they got everybody else on board. It’s that old adage about the process – you have to put the work in before you get the results. The guys just kept working to get better.”
“It’s a testament to hard work and keeping your mind focused on your goals. That’s really what these guys have done. Anything is possible when you keep working hard and stay focused on what you are trying to reach.”
Eastbrook will be facing off against Western Boone for the second straight season for the Class 2A State Championship this coming Friday in Indianapolis.
“They’re good, obviously,” Adamson said. “They’ve got a quarterback that’s one of the best athletes in the state.
“But I really like our chances with this group.”
And safe to say, the Panthers are ready to enact a little revenge – and win their first title.
“This has been one of our dreams and of our goals since we were elementary kids playing pee-wee football,” Ailstock said. “But now, we are just ready for it. We knew we could we do it. We got this.”
“It’s awesome man,” Dalton added. “We have to have a great week of practice. We have to show out, and take a ‘ship next week, hopefully.’”
As a team, the Panthers finished with 293 rushing yards on 57 carries. Dalton led the way with 174 yards on 13 carries, while Bragg was second with 57 yards.
Hale led the defense with 11 tackles, while Bowser recorded 10, Collins nine, and Dalton seven.
Walsh led Andrean with 124 yards on 29 carries, while Hamilton finished 22-of-27 for 148 yards and two touchdowns.