On Tuesday, the sting of Friday’s 42-7 loss to Center Grove in a Class 5A sectional championship game still was gnawing at Columbus North football coach Tim Bless.
As time passes, though, he admitted that he will smile when he looks back at what this particular group accomplished.
At one point 1-5, the Bull Dogs won five consecutive games, scored two heart-pounding victories in playoff action and had the opportunity to play for a sectional title.
What was the thing he will remember most about the 2012 season?
“Just turning the corner and the reward of persevering through tough times,” Bless said before collecting equipment from his players.
In the past 10 seasons under Bless, only the 2008 squad (4-6) had a losing record. This season could have gotten away from the Bull Dogs but didn’t.
“It was very gratifying,” he said. “Early on, we had two games (East and Franklin Central) that could have gone either way, and we didn’t win either. In the tournament, we had two games that could have gone either way, and we won both.
“It was a combination of factors. Regaining our health was a factor. We also changed some personnel around.
“But there really is nothing sexy about it. The more you do something, the more you get better.”
North never lost its commitment to working hard in
practice, and it paid off at the end of the season.
The players probably will remember most the 35-33 win against Whiteland in the first round of sectional play followed by the 17-14 thriller against Franklin Central, which had beaten North during the regular season. Both were home games that provided plenty of highlights for the fans.
North simply couldn’t handle the state’s top powers, teams such as Lawrence Central, Pike and Center Grove.
“That’s the world we live in,” Bless said.
There were plenty of heroics. Bless said his high-profile offensive and defensive lineman, Thomas Shoaf, “lived up to his billing.”
But then there were players like center Zak Ruehman, too.
“It is fun to see kids who have risen so far,” Bless said. “You see all the things that earned him a role as team captain. He was an overachiever who put it all together.
“And I loved the way Luis Cambron (offensive guard) played football. It’s all nasty. He is as hard-nosed and gritty of a player as you will find.”
Bless said tight end Skyler Farmer made a sacrifice for the team by playing tight end over wide receiver and, at times, was “out-bodied.” But he became a good blocker.
The Bull Dogs failed to get the ball often to talented Taylor Summa at wide receiver, but he found other ways to help offensively, returning two kick-offs for touchdowns and becoming the area’s premier return man.
One of the surprise players on the team was 5-foot-9 senior Shannon McDonald at wide receiver.
“I had no idea he would become a key player,” Bless said. “But he did. He overachieved.”
Columbus North had plenty of talent at tailback in seniors Jamaal Halliburton and Jesse Tompkins, but injuries plagued both all season, and the team never really got any consistency at the position.
“Our tailback position did rush for over 1,400 yards, so from that perspective, I guess we did pretty good,” Bless said. “We had two great football players, and they never were healthy at the same time.”
Junior quarterback Michael Vogel struggled early but patched together some fine play during North’s winning streak.
“No doubt about that, Michael did better,” Bless said. “At one point he was two touchdowns to six interceptions, and he finished seven and seven. His completion percentage rose dramatically.”
Linebacker Shaquille Ash played “as advertised,” said Bless, who said his senior set a new school record with 110 solo tackles that included seven tackles for loss.
Of course, all those tackles meant that North’s defense was struggling.
“There is no doubt when you have those big statistics that you’re not gang tackling, and the other team is getting a lot of snaps.”
Bless said it was fun to watch linebacker Luke Teague get better every week.
He has good football IQ, but his aggressiveness improved,” Bless said. “At times early, he was too cautious. Then we moved him up to defensive end for two or three games and let him unleash it. When he moved back to linebacker, he was better.”
Senior defensive end Conner Marshall made huge strides.
“He was a self-made man with four years of hard work,” Bless said. “He wasn’t even on the radar that he would be a starter. It was good to see. He was our second-leading tackler with 44 solos and seven tackles for loss.”
Defensive tackle Solomon Knight put another solid season on the board, and that unit became a team strength when Shoaf moved to defense and played both ways.
Sophomore Brandon Woods and junior Logan Lunsford struggled at times, Bless said, but learned a lot of lessons that hint at a bright future for both.
Summa had a big year at safety. “He was the bedrock of our secondary,” Bless said. “He also was in charge of making all the checks. That’s a big job in 21st-century football. Taylor not only was our best cover guy, he was our steadiest tackler.”
Sophomore Josh Holt switched from tailback to safety and had a big role on North’s improving unit.
And senior place-kicker Joseph Gedeon finally got his shot at winning a game with a late field goal and did. Gedeon hit a 27-yarder against Franklin Central in the second-round of sectional play.
“He worked at it for four years,” Bless said. “And he won a game for us.”