EVANSVILLE — The way Saturday night’s Class 4A Regional football championship game began, it looked like Columbus East would have a long night at the Reitz Bowl and an even longer bus ride back to Columbus.
But with their proverbial backs against the wall — actually, the end zone — the top-ranked Olympians came up big.
After falling behind 7-0 and handing the ball back over, they stopped Evansville Reitz on downs at the 5-yard line, then marched 95 yards for the tying touchdown to jump-start themselves on their way to a 35-21 victory.
“As we talked to our kids about before the game, we knew they were going to be fired up, and they were going to play with a lot of emotion,” East coach Bob Gaddis said. “That’s the way this (Reitz) team plays.
“I thought we stayed the course through that. That was a huge stop early. We answered the bell when we had to, we didn’t panic and our kids showed a lot of character and played four quarters of good football.”
The Olympians (13-0) move on to the semi-state game, where they will host Cathedral on Friday. East lost to the Irish 62-7 in last year’s semi-state.
Sophomore Markell Jones, who ran for 217 yards and all five Olympian touchdowns, capped that early drive, which was a 17-play, 95-yarder. He ran two yards for the touchdown on the second play of the second quarter to bring life to the East sideline, knotting the score 7-7.
“I love games like that,” quarterback Alex Cowan said. “I love when we have to go down and we have to score.”
Jones ran 35 yards for another score in the second quarter to give the Olympians (13-0) a 14-7 lead. The Panthers (9-4) tied it just before halftime on a two-yard touchdown run by Ke’Andre Vaughn.
East took the second-half kickoff and needed only five plays to go 69 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Cowan hit J.T. Voelker for 13 and 35 yards on the drive, and Jones did the rest, finishing with a 13-yard gallop.
After stuffing the Panthers’ offense, the Olympians took command with a 14-play, 59-yard touchdown drive, jumping to a 27-14 lead on a three-yard run by Jones with 8:51 left in the game. Cowan, Christian Wichman and John Busack did most of the running on the drive, with Jones taking a break.
“I was cramping,” Jones said. “I hadn’t been feeling good, so I lost a lot of water. I need to hydrate better next week.”
Unfortunately for the Olympians, they missed the extra point after Jones’ fourth touchdown and Reitz answered quickly. The Panthers needed less than two minutes before Phillips scored on a 7-yard run to cut East’s lead to 27-21. It appeared Reitz had the momentum.
East took over on its 15, and faced a third-and-1 from the 24. East went back to Jones again and he broke through the line and went 76 yards for the touchdown which clinched the victory. Cowan hit Jared Whiteside with the two-point conversion pass to make it 35-21 with 5:13 remaining.
Trailing by two scores, the Panthers drove to the East 34 before linebacker Logan Galarno intercepted a Drew Johnston pass and returned it 45 yards to the Reitz 25. Galarno was supposed to blitz on the play instead of dropping into pass coverage.
“I never got the call from the sidelines, so I was just on my pass route,” Galarno said. “I found out I was supposed to blitz when I came off the field. The quarterback liked that route all game, and I dropped it twice before and I wasn’t dropping the third one.”
The Olympians drove to the 2-yard line in the final minute before taking a knee to run out the clock.
“We just had to play like we usually do,” Cowan said. “We just had to go out there, we had to scratch and claw throughout the game and we just had to make plays.”
Vaughn finished with 153 yards on 29 carries for the Panthers. Johnston completed 15-of-30 passes for 157 yards, but was intercepted by Christian Wichman and Galarno.
“Our D-line, it starts with them,” Galarno said. “When they got a push, they stopped them at the line. When they didn’t, we all have to make plays.”
“The defense hung in there and made plays when they had to,” Gaddis said. “Football games are always going to come down to five or six plays. You just don’t know when they’re going to happen, and those defensive stops and those picks turned out to be huge.”
Cowan finished 7-of-11 passing for 101 yards and carried 17 times for 50 yards. Voelker caught five passes for 85 yards.
“I just think our line played phenomenally well,” Cowan said. “I think they do every week.”
“Everything that I do, I credit to the offensive linemen,” Jones said. “We’re going to do it again next week.”