Columbus East senior defensive back Caleb Pettit said Friday night’s hour-long bus ride from Lucas Oil Stadium back to the school was the best bus ride he has ever been on.

That probably had a lot to do with what took place during the 2 1/2 hours before the drive. The Olympians were crowned the Class 5A state champions after beating Kokomo 42-28.

East coach Bob Gaddis said the players were pretty tired for the first half-hour of the ride because of the effort they put in during the game.

The bus was greeted with celebratory honks from fans as it got closer to town, and that’s when the players began hopping out of their seats and enjoying the fruits of their labor. The ride into town was only the beginning of the night’s celebration. The East gym already was packed with more than 400 eager fans waiting to congratulate the state champs once they arrived.

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“This is something that you can’t ever take away from your kids,” Gaddis said. “They’re going to have it forever. They’re going to come in here and they’re going to see their banners up. They’ll see their pictures up, and it’s just forever. What a great win.”

The cheerleaders made a tunnel for the players and coaches as they walked in around midnight dressed in business attire. The entire sea of orange stood on its feet and exploded with cheers and claps as the team sat down.

“It’s a pretty amazing feeling to see how many people we had that had faith in us over the run and just kept pushing us to be the best that we could be,” said Pettit, who had a fumble recovery in the first half to set up a touchdown. “Without them, I don’t know if we would have been able to get to where we were.”

The cheerleaders led the crowd with chants of “East Side,” “Let’s go East” and “EHS.” Athletics director Pete Huse took over and gave a few remarks before handing the microphone over to Gaddis.

Huse reminded the crowd how they were filled the gym 364 days ago after last year’s 16-13 championship loss to Westfield and said, “There are a lot more smiles tonight.”

“I didn’t even want to be here last year because the constant reminder about us losing last year was just too much for me,” senior tight end Tyler Thomas said. “This year we know that we got that win, and it’s just time to party.”

Gaddis’s praised his players for the hard work and said they were one of the best practice teams he has ever had. He also thanked everybody from the fans to the Quarterback Club, coaching staff and their families.

The seniors stepped to the middle of the gym after Gaddis spoke, while Mark Scuitto presented Huse and the rest of the East family with the IHSAA 2017 state trophy.

Quarterback Club president Lisa McCarter, whose son Cole is a senior center for the Olympians, has been with the club for six years and said this year has been a dream season.

“Especially tonight with the community support, the caravan, with the sendoff, the game, the sea of orange and then this,” McCarter said. I know they feel just on top of the world.”

The entire team celebrated in a big huddle one last time before they began roaming around and taking pictures with friends and family.

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Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.