After graduating a host of remarkably talented football players a season ago, many doubted that the Eastbrook Panthers would return to Indianapolis any time soon.
That doubt grew stronger after the Panthers lost their first two games to the Marion Giants and the Delta Eagles by a combined score of 79-26.
But instead of folding and giving into the pressure that they were facing and the outside noise they were hearing, the Panthers simply buckled down, made the adjustments, and got back to playing Eastbrook football.
Behind a running game that grew stronger with each passing week, an ascending defense full of budding young stars, and a tremendous group of senior leadership, the Panthers racked up 12 consecutive victories, winning their 15th sectional championship, their seventh regional championship, and their fourth semi-state championship in the process, advancing to the 2A state title game for the third time in the last four years.
“Not a lot of people thought this group of seniors would be able to get us back here,” Eastbrook quarterback Dylan Bragg said. “We talked about how proud we were of each other and how through the summer and through the season we just stuck together. Getting here [again] is an honor.”
However, after a magical run to Lucas Oil Stadium, the Panthers’ and Head Coach Jeff Adamson’s quest for their first state championship once again fell short.
In a rematch of last year’s 2A state championship, the Western Boone Stars, led by senior quarterback phenom Spencer Wright and a dominant defense of their own, controlled Saturday afternoon’s contest from start to finish, winning their second straight title by a score of 44-7.
Throughout the season, and despite being smaller in stature, the Panthers’ defense used their team speed to their advantage, consistently winning games against teams that were much bigger than them.
The Stars, like many teams that the Panthers faced this year, had the size, but furthermore, they had the quickness, agility, and speed to go along with it – something that Eastbrook had not seen since their first week matchup against the Giants.
“They had speed on both sides,” Eastbrook Head Coach Jeff Adamson said. “They were big enough where we couldn’t move them to get anything consistent going offensively. Hate to say it, but this Western Boone team is even better than the one we played last year.”
The Stars finished with an incredible 512 yards of offense – 267 yards on the ground and another 254 through the air. Three Western Boone rushers finished with at least 54 yards on the ground, while Wright completed 14 of his 18 passes, throwing for two touchdowns.
“They did their homework, and they hit us where it hurt,” Eastbrook senior wide receiver/defensive back Jackson Ailstock said. “They hit us where they needed to, and they played a better game than we did.”
Western Boone started the game on offense, and after 10 plays and 65 yards, 57 of which were on the ground, they found paydirt, as Connor Hole found room off the right side and scampered in for an eight-yard touchdown, giving the Stars a 7-0 lead.
The Panthers’ first possession got off to a promising start, but the drive stalled at their own 41-yard line, and they were forced to punt.
A block in the back penalty by Western Boone pinned them at their own three-yard line, but 10 plays and 97 yards later, the Stars increased their lead to 14-0.
Their offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, and their perfect balance between rushing and passing helped the offense move down the field with relative ease.
On second-and-11 from the Eastbrook 31-yard line, Wright threw a perfect pass to Hole, who raced 31 yards, untouched, to the end zone.
Armed with the momentum, the Stars’ defense forced an Eastbrook three-and-out, getting the ball back just 1:37 later. Starting on their own 26 yard line, Western Boone embarked on their third consecutive 10-play drive, highlighted by a perfectly placed bomb from Wright to wide receiver Cortez Soudemire, who picked up 34 yards on third-and-eight.
“Spencer Wright pulled a rabbit out of a hat with some amazing plays,” Adamson said. “He’s the kind of guy that can elevate everybody’s play on his team.”
Four plays after the Soudemire catch, Western Boone running back Robby Taylor scored his first of three touchdowns on the afternoon, rumbling in from a yard away to increase the Stars’ advantage to 21-0.
Eastbrook’s fourth drive of the first half was their most efficient, picking up 39 tough yards on 15 plays. But a tipped pass from Bragg was intercepted by Austin Bowman and returned 52 yards to the Eastbrook 30, ending the Panthers’ scoring threat.
Braxton Bowser returned the favor at the other end, intercepting a Wright pass in the back of the end zone, but the Panthers went into halftime trailing by three touchdowns.
After two quarters of play, the Stars had outgained the Panthers 264-74.
“We needed to be able…to keep it away from them,” Adamson said. “We just couldn’t do that consistently enough to keep it away.”
Disaster struck the Panthers on their first drive of the second half, as a Wyatt Stephenson fumble was recovered by Caleb Freeman in the Eastbrook red zone.
The Stars were able to turn that turnover into points just four plays later, as Taylor scored his second one-yard rushing touchdown to make it 28-0.
After another Eastbrook three-and-out, the Stars scored again. Facing a second-and-20 from their own 49 yards line after a personal foul penalty, Wright completed a 14-yard pass to Hole before finding a wide open Connor Garrity for a 37-yard touchdown pass on their next snap. The extra point was no good, but the Stars still led 34-0.
Taylor scored his third rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and Western Boone kicker Jacob Taylor capped off the Stars’ scoring with a 26-yard field goal.
Eastbrook broke Western Boone’s shutout bid early in the fourth quarter, using a three-play, 43-yard drive to get on the scoreboard. After a one-yard loss by Bragg, senior running back Zeke Binkerd ripped off a 43-yard run – Eastbrook’s longest play of the afternoon – to set up a first and goal at the Western Boone one-yard line. Stephenson punched it in one play later, but at that point, the game was already out of reach.
In the game, Eastbrook compiled just 127 yards of offense. Binkerd led the way with 58 yards on seven carries, while Stephenson finished with only 22 yards on 13 carries. Isaiah Dalton caught Eastbrook’s lone completed pass for 13 yards.
For the third time in the last four years, the Panthers came one game short of their ultimate goal.
But their loss on Saturday does not lessen the accomplishments that this group achieved throughout the course of the 2019-2020 season.
After the Panthers lost their first two games, many counted them out. But the Panthers, and their coaches, never lost faith in themselves.
They proved their doubters wrong. They proved their critics wrong. And they proved that Eastbrook football is not only here to stay, but on the rise.
“It’s a testament to the coaching staff,” Bragg said. “The young guys, they learned throughout the year. That’s the coaching staff – the coaching staff works extremely hard. And I think they put that belief in us. That’s what got us here.”
“The seniors took it upon themselves,” Adamson added. “It wasn’t a big screaming, yelling meeting. It was just, ‘Hey, we have to get back to work. We have to get our hands dirty and do what we do.’ The seniors really led that charge, and I think that got everybody refocused on just doing the simple things that we do every day in practice.”
Stephenson, Bragg, Binkerd, Ailstock, Malijah Foust, Gabriel Sanchez, Kamron McGriff, Dylan Dearth, Parker Kelley, Klayton Kitts, Cobee Rice, Jacob McCoy, and Alex Baker each played their final high school football game, and their contributions to the Eastbrook football program, both on and off the field, will not soon be forgotten.
“They are tremendous players, but also high quality individuals,” Adamson said. “I think they took, as a group, the leadership expectations a whole other level this year. The way that they brought some of those younger guys along and made them understand how hard they had to play and how important it was, was just outstanding. All of that created a tight-knit group that was able to overcome some adversity through the course of the year.
“I hope that that standard is what every group moving forward wants to be at.”
Not only did they lay the foundation for the Panthers’ young nucleus in the years to come, they also developed an unbreakable bond with one another – one they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
“It’s been an extreme honor. It’s been incredible,” Bragg said. “Those are my brothers for life. Obviously, I’m upset we couldn’t finish the job here today, but I wouldn’t take anything back these last four years of football with them. It’s been amazing.”
“These guys are my brothers,” Stephenson added. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I love these people.”
Not only did this group enjoy playing with one another, they gave their all to their incredible head coach – a man who has worked tirelessly to mold them not only into great football players, but remarkable young men.
“Nothing [more] I could ask for – this was the greatest time in my life,” Ailstock said. “It was amazing. Coach is the GOAT – the greatest of all time. It’s been amazing – both on the field and off the field.
“I love him to death,” Bragg added. “Tough we couldn’t send him off with a state championship, but he’s done everything he can for us. We played our hearts out for him. It’s just been a great honor to be able to play for one of the best coaches in Indiana football history.”
The Panthers finished the season with a 12-3 record, and though they will head back to eastern Grant County with another state-runner up trophy, the future of this football team, once thought to be dim, is still incredibly bright.
“We want this to be the expectation every year,” Adamson said. “I think they’ve raised that standard. We’ll be back. We’ll get to work in a few days and start looking towards next year.”