INDIANAPOLIS — Make no mistake about it, Friday night’s semistate win against longtime nemesis Cathedral was huge for the Columbus East football program.
But in case they needed any reminders, coach Bob Gaddis made sure the Olympians knew not long after that game that they had one more game to play. East will face Kokomo in the Class 5A state title game at 7:05 p.m. Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Like we told our kids, that was a huge game, and that was a huge win for our program, but the state championship game is Friday,” Gaddis said. “Hopefully, we take that confidence that we played with last Friday into the game this Friday.”
The Class 5A No. 2 Olympians (13-1) will make their second consecutive state finals appearance, their third in five years and their fourth overall. The Wildkats (9-4) will be playing in the state finals for the first time.
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East, which won state titles in 1979 and 2013, fell to Westfield 16-13 in last year’s 5A final.
“That was always their ultimate goal — to get here,” Gaddis said. “We’ve been beaten by some really good football teams in the tournament, and this year, we’ve beaten some good football teams. I think the fact that we were here last year, I’m hoping that we understand that the most important part about this week is being ready to play at 7 o’clock Friday night.”
Kokomo has the weakest record of any of the 12 teams in this weekend’s state finals, but the Kats avenged half of their four regular-season losses in sectional play by beating West Lafayette Harrison and McCutcheon. They rallied from an early 21-0 deficit to beat Zionsville 33-21 in the regional, then downed Michigan City 21-14 in the semistate.
Quarterback Kyle Wade has started all 47 games in his four-year career at Kokomo, but other key players have missed time, contributing to the team’s challenges.
Top rusher Jack Perkins missed the first three football games because he was playing summer baseball and will play baseball at Louisville. Perkins also missed two games with an injury.
Top receiver Steven Edwards missed the first five games when his family moved out of state and has missed the past two with a broken collarbone. His availability for Friday is uncertain.
“We had a lot of adversity this season, a lot of issues we had to overcome,” Kokomo coach Brett Colby said. “About Week 6, we started getting some people back and getting some things taken care of. The seniors came together, which has really helped this football team.”
The Wildkats program has gone through adversity off the field as well. Five days after their first game last year, a tornado ripped through Kokomo, leveling several homes and businesses.
One former player lost his house, and a couple others had grandparents or uncles affected. The team’s practice facility is less than a half-mile away from an apartment complex that is still condemned.
When the tornado came through between 2 and 3 p.m., Colby’s son, an assistant coach, was outside doing film in a team meeting before practice. Alerts on cell phones started going off, and the players and coaches huddled in the basement of the school for about an hour.
“Some of our kids couldn’t get home,” Colby said. “The parents couldn’t get to the school to get them because roads were closed. It was unbelievable. We had police officers taking kids home. We were very fortunate at Kokomo High School to be able to get away with as less damage as we got away with.”
The next day, school officials decided to cancel the Wildcats’ game against Hamilton Heights, which was to be played at Lucas Oil. Instead, both teams came together and cleaned up youth football fields and youth soccer fields in Kokomo.
The Indianapolis Colts did have Kokomo and Hamilton Heights down to Lucas Oil for a preseason game that Saturday. The two teams were able to play another regular-season game at Lucas Oil later last season.
Now, the Wildcats are headed back to Lucas Oil. And so are the Olympians, which isn’t a surprise to Colby.
“I think Cathedral hurt themselves with some turnovers, but Columbus East is a whale of a football team,” Colby said. “After playing last year here, I know they had a mission to get back, and try to avenge the loss they had in the state finals. Coach Gaddis has done a great job getting his team ready to play this year.”
Gaddis said he has a very good group of seniors and that they were determined to get back to the state finals.
“I think a lot of people doubted the fact that they might be able to get it done,” Gaddis said. “But we’ve been fortunate that we’ve stayed healthy, we’ve gotten better and our kids had a goal to get back and they’re playing their best football right now.”
After winning a coin flip Monday, Columbus East will be considered the home team for Friday’s 7:05 p.m. game against Kokomo at Lucas Oil Stadium. As the home team, the Olympians will wear their home orange jersey.
This year marks the first time East will wear home jerseys in the state championship game. East is 2-1 when wearing their road-white jersey.