It’s been called the state’s toughest football sectional, and the past two weeks have proved that for Columbus East.
After knocking off Whiteland, the No. 6-ranked team in Class 5A, the No. 2 Olympians saw their season come to an end with a 24-14 loss to No. 1 New Palestine on Friday. But for the Dragons, who came in averaging 66 points a game, it was anything but easy.
East limited New Palestine to barely a third of its season average. The Olympians led 7-0 after one quarter, and the teams were tied 7-7 at halftime.
Had East not been stopped on fourth down a couple of times deep in Dragons territory, the Olympians likely would have had the lead at halftime. Who knows what kind of pressure that would have put on New Palestine, whose smallest margin of victory coming in was 37 points.
The game was eerily similar to Columbus North’s battle with Center Grove two weeks earlier. That game was also tied 7-7 at halftime before the Trojans, ranked No. 1 in 6A, pulled away for a 34-7 win.
Center Grove went on to win the sectional with a rout of Jeffersonville the following week, then claimed the regional with a victory at Warren Central on Friday. The Trojans are just two wins away from a state title.
Like Center Grove in 6A, New Palestine in 5A should go on to win a state title this season. Those may be the best two teams in the state, regardless of class.
If the Dragons win a state title this season and capture at least a regional crown next year, they would move up to Class 6A in 2017. Meanwhile, East is guaranteed to move back down to Class 4A in 2017 — as long as its enrollment doesn’t grow to the point where it would be slotted in 5A.
But next year, the alignments will be the same. East and New Palestine will be in the same Class 5A sectional again. Both figure to be strong again, although the Dragons lose quarterback Alex Neligh, running back Nick Brickens and top receivers Duke Blackwell and Logan Greene, most of its offensive line and several defensive players to graduation.
The Olympians, on the other hand, return six offensive and four defensive starters. They’ll miss standout running back Steven O’Neal, plus key two-way players Rhett Myers, Sam Dwenger, Aaron Kruchten and Coy Park. But they’ll have back several key players, led by sophomore quarterback Josh Major.
Major stepped in at the beginning of the season when returning starter K.J. McCarter injured his hamstring. Major completed 74 percent of his passes for 1,435 yards with 17 touchdowns and only one interception.
Both of Major’s starting receivers will return in Cam Wilson and Caleb Voelker. Tight end Tyler Thomas, tackle Jared Clark and center Harry Crider also return on offense.
T.C. O’Neal turned into a star at outside linebacker this season and could move to the middle next year. Three-fourths of the defensive backfield return in cornerback Zach Springhorn and safeties Wade Forman and Ethan Summa.
Freshman Sam Thomasson stepped in as East’s kicker late in the season, and Major did the punting.
So while the Olympians will still have to get past New Palestine to win a sectional title next year, East’s 12-year run as Hoosier Hills Conference champions and its 63-game HHC winning streak don’t appear to be in jeopardy of ending anytime soon.