Over the last three seasons, the Marion Giants and the Mississinewa Indians, longtime rivals separated by less than six miles, have met in the sectional championship game.
And all of them, including Friday’s night game, turned out to be instant classics.
Two years ago, in 2017, Cade Campbell recorded the game-winning interception on the Giants’ final drive, securing the Indians’ first sectional crown in 29 years.
Last year, behind their historically great defense, Marion found redemption, defeating Mississinewa 26-9 en route to their first semi-state berth since 1990.
In round three at Dick Lootens Stadium, after a titanic, 48-minute clash between two of the best teams in Class 4A, Mississinewa came out on top, as Andre Sallade kicked the game-winning field goal with 1.9 seconds left to lift the Indians to a 31-28 victory over the Giants.
With the win, Mississinewa claimed their second sectional title in the last three years.
“It means the world,” Campbell said after the game. “Losing to them last year added a lot of fuel to the fire for this game. We just wanted to come out here and prove to the world [how good we are.] We should not be underrated like we are. We put in the work all summer, and we came here to play tonight.”
The Mississinewa offense compiled 448 yards of offense, 416 of which were on the ground, and the defense made huge plays in crucial moments.
“Hats off to them,” Marion Head Coach Craig Chambers said. “They played tougher than we did. They coached a little better than we did. They did better than we did today.”
Sallade, who has solidified himself as one of the best kickers in the history of Grant County football, was clutch all evening, hitting all four of his extra point attempts to go along with his sectional-clinching kick from 20 yards away.
“We have this concept called ‘holding the rope,’” Indians’ quarterback Andrew Cruz said. “That’s what came out tonight. Everybody ‘held the rope’ no matter what. Even if we were bleeding or hurting, everybody ‘held the rope’ and did their job and did their assignment. That’s why we are here right now.”
Early in the season, the Indians dropped a tough game to the Eastbrook Panthers, essentially ending their chance at a conference championship.
But instead of hanging their heads, the Indians went right back to work, correcting their mistakes, building on their strengths, and most importantly, sticking together.
Since then, the Indians have gone 8-0 and are taking another championship trophy back to Gas City.
“I’m so proud of these kids,” Mississinewa Head Coach Curt Funk said. “They had a hiccup Week 4 [against Eastbrook,] and they took it hard. Our kids, they responded this season, and they kept working hard and grinding. This is one of our goals – to win a sectional – and I’m real proud of them.”
After the Giants recorded a rare three-and-out to start the game, the Indians went right to work, dominating the line of scrimmage and establishing the running game early. Despite starting at their own 14-yard line, the Indians drove 86 yards on 11 yards, running the ball in a variety of ways to keep the Marion defense off balance.
Cruz punched it in from two yards out on second and goal, giving the Indians an early 7-0 lead.
Marion did not trail for long, using their own efficient rushing attack to knot the game up at 7-7. Starting at their own 42-yard line, Marion needed just four plays to find pay dirt, as Giants’ quarterback Keshaun Taylor scored on a 27-yard touchdown run.
After some strong defense on both sides, the Giants were able to take their first lead of the game late in the first half. In 4:26, the Giants ran 10 plays, capping off the possession with a 13-yard touchdown run by Khalid Stamps.
Mississinewa was able to drive the ball into Marion territory in the final minute of the opening half, but the Giants’ defense held, preserving their 14-7 lead at halftime.
While both teams made adjustments, Mississinewa’s emphasis on running the football did not change.
In fact, their running game was even more effective in the final two quarters – as their veteran offensive line of Lucas Asbury, Jason Arbogast, Darreyen Poulson, Timothy Scott, and Skylar Tackett paved the way, opening huge running lanes and blocking well downfield.
“They answered the call after the first half,” Funk said of his O-line. “We made some minor tweaks at halftime with our line, they got settled in, and in that second half, they just took over.”
Campbell opened the second half with a 52-yard run, and six plays later, Cruz collected his second rushing touchdown to tie the game at 14-14.
Much like in the first half, the Giants did not take long to respond. Just four plays after Cruz’s two-yard plunge, Taylor hit sophomore Braxstin Delgado on a 46-yard go route, helping Marion regain the lead at 21-14.
Carson Campbell’s 15-yard touchdown run with less than three minutes to go in the third would knot the contest up once again at 21-21, setting up what would be a dramatic, and memorable, final frame.
On their ensuing drive, the Giants cruised down the field with ease, eventually setting up shop at the Mississinewa three-yard line.
But in the game’s biggest moment, the Indians’ defense delivered.
“We talk about situational football all the time,” Coach Funk said. “That was one of those situations where champions step up, and that’s what they did.”
On first-and-goal, Mississinewa held Marion running back Zaimar Burnett to just 2 yards. On the next play, a fumbled snap by Taylor led to a three-yard loss, but a three-yard run by Stamps put the Giants on the half-yard line on fourth-and-goal.
As the game turned over to the fourth quarter, the Indians stopped Stamps dead in his tracks, forcing a momentum shifting turnover on downs.
“That was a heck of a stop,” Chambers said. “We should be able to get into the end zone [there,] but we couldn’t get in. They were just a little tougher than we were down there.”
“We just had to play assignment football,” Mississinewa linebacker Kyler Funk added. “There were a few times where our D-line wasn’t lined up correctly, but they did an amazing job on the goal line. They probably did the best that I’ve ever seen them do all season. They created the holes for me and Jon [Hall], and they did a fantastic job.”
Two possessions later, Cruz scored his third touchdown of the game, and Stamps followed with his second rushing score, setting up Mississinewa’s game-winning drive with 2:55 remaining in the contest.
Behind Cade Campbell’s 48 rushing yards on the final series, the Indians advanced to the Giants’ four-yard line, calling a timeout with 1.9 seconds remaining.
From 20 yards away, the field goal attempt was, in essence, a chip shot for the remarkably consistent Sallade.
“I was just thinking that I needed to do what I’ve been practicing,” Sallade said. “I was happy with the offense because they made it really close – it was only one yard further than a PAT. The angle was a little tough, but I was just happy with what the offense gave me.”
And even before his kick sailed perfectly through the uprights, sending the Mississinewa sideline, and their fans, into an uproar, his teammates knew that Sallade would come through in crunch time.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind,” Kyler Funk said. “He’s the best kicker in 4A football. He’s definitely the best kicker I’ve ever played with.”
Cade Campbell put forth one of the best performances of his career, finishing with an incredible 304 yards on a whopping 45 carries, while Carson Campbell compiled 109 yards and a touchdown on just nine rushing attempts.
“It makes coaching a lot easier when you have two kids like that, that’s for sure,” Coach Funk said. “They are coachable. I get on them too as much as I get on [everyone else.] I yell at them, scream at them, and coach them hard. They take it, and they respond to it, and that’s what makes them great.”
For Marion, Stamps led the offense with 176 yards on 30 carries, while Taylor finished with 101 yards on 12 carries. Delgado finished with three catches for 78 yards.
Mississinewa will square off against the East Noble Knights for a regional championship this coming Friday night at Fisher Field. Kickoff will be at 7 pm.
“We are going to enjoy this tonight and enjoy this for the rest of our lives,” Funk said. “But tomorrow morning, we have to wake up and get ready for a regional.”