INDIANAPOLIS — From the pregame all the way through the end of Friday night’s semistate contest, it had the same feel of a football game that Columbus East had played just 13 months prior.
On Oct. 21 of last year, the Olympians were faced with a first-round sectional road game at New Palestine. The Dragons were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Class 5A and had been steamrolling their opponents all season.
East was a decided underdog against a team that had knocked the Olympians out of the playoffs the previous two seasons. Not many people outside the program gave them much of a chance.
Final score: East 35, New Palestine 7.
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Now, fast forward a little more than a year, and the Olympians were in much the same position heading into a semistate battle against Cathedral at a site where the Irish had played most of their home games.
Cathedral was 4-0 all-time against East, and none of those games had really been close. The Irish came in with five Division I recruits, including players headed to such stalwarts as Alabama and Notre Dame.
Final score: East 42, Cathedral 13
“Not many people gave us a chance,” East coach Bob Gaddis said. “The fans that came and supported us gave us a chance, but not many people around the state gave us a chance to win. We just talked about coming out and playing these guys between the lines and keeping all the noise outside.”
As a result, the Olympians (13-1) are back in the Class 5A state title game. They’ll play Kokomo (9-4) at 7:05 p.m. Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The New Palestine and Cathedral games played out very much alike for East. In both games, the Olympians used a punishing ground attack from running backs Jamon Hogan and Jaedin Miller and quarterback Josh Major, with a few timely passes from Major sprinkled in. And in both games, the defense came up big against high-powered offenses.
This time, turnovers played a huge role. East took advantage of four turnovers — three fumble recoveries and a Jonah Wichman interception — and twice stopped the Irish on downs.
A week earlier, Cathedral had trailed Bloomington South 21-14 at halftime in the regional before controlling the second half in a 35-21 win. Friday, the Olympians led 28-13 at halftime, and the Irish had to be thinking of another comeback.
But East dominated the second half. They had the ball for 15 minutes, 47 seconds of the second half to just 8:13 for Cathedral and never let the Irish back in the game.
“Our kids don’t very often get to play with a chip on their shoulder or play as the underdogs, and this week, we played that up quite a bit,” Gaddis said. “We talked about how great (Cathedral’s) program is. They have a great football tradition — 12 state championships, never been beaten in the 5A tournament, played the best schedule in the state — and we had an opportunity to play them.”
Gaddis said the Olympians had perhaps their best week of practice all season in preparing for the Irish.
“We had a tremendous week of practice,” Gaddis said. “All of our coaches felt like when we walked off the field (Thursday) night that we had a chance to win the football game.”
Now, East is just one win away from its second state title in the past five years and its first in 5A. Another week of practice like last week’s and an effort like Friday night’s should certainly yield another championship banner.