In a season where the Columbus East football team went to the semi-state game, compiled a 13-1 record and won Hoosier Hills Conference, sectional and regional championships, head coach Bob Gaddis said the turning point came in the very first game.
After just two plays.
When Bloomington North scored in just two plays against the Olympians, Gaddis said it was “our find-out time.”
The team had come through a summer of uncertainty. “A lot of people knew we had graduated a lot of seniors who were talented,” Gaddis said.
That class included quarterback Gunner Kiel, who was rated by some services as the top quarterback recruit in the nation.
Taking Kiel’s place was Alex Cowan, an undersized junior who really was more of an athlete than a prototype quarterback. In fact, during the offseason, the East coaching staff switched from a spread offense that relied on the pass to a power running game that incorporated tight ends.
Besides everything else, East had just eight seniors and a sophomore at tailback, Markell Jones, who played linebacker as a freshman.
“I am sure there was a feeling in our league that this was the year they could get East,” Gaddis said.
But after giving up that early touchdown to Bloomington North, the Olympians answered back and eventually won in dramatic fashion.
“We were going to find out what kind of character this group had,” Gaddis said. “After we responded, I knew we would be fine. We had a feeling of team confidence.”
The Olympians won two terrific, down-to-the-wire games against Bloomington North (31-28) and Columbus North (23-20), and then rolled through the HHC with little opposition. Four playoff victories followed against East Central, Connersville, Franklin County and Evansville Reitz before East lost in the semi-state game to Cathedral 49-14.
“Our job is to help players reach their potential,” Gaddis said. “To get that done takes effort from the coaching staff and the players. This group played as close to its potential as any group we’ve had here.”
The reason for East’s success started way before the first snap of the season.
“What was great was that these guys held each other accountable,” Gaddis said. “If an athlete misses a workout, it can be hard if the only one who talks to him is a coach. These players said something to each other.
“And I think our players understood that we tried to involve everyone in the development of the team. You have good practices as the result of the entire team understanding that role.
“We just had a real feeling of team. They were a tight-knit group. Our Quarterback Club would feed them on Thursday nights, but we had other nights where the players would get together. We have offensive line dinners and defensive line dinners and skill position dinners. You don’t do that if you don’t like each other or if you are jealous. As coaches, we had nothing to do with that. They did that on their own.”
On the field, East used its powerful running game that matured behind a fierce offensive line.
“The offensive line, obviously, was the strength of our team,” Gaddis said. “And you have to consider our tight ends, Jared Whiteside and Cody Hempstead, as part of that group.”
Jones started fast but suffered a stress fracture in his lower leg that never really healed all season and forced him to miss time. Christian Wichman showed that he could easily have been the starting tailback if he wasn’t playing linebacker and filled the gap. Cowen was steady throughout, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and passing for more than 1,000 yards.
East’s defense got stronger as the season progressed. The defensive linemen were a force.
“We really talked about those two juniors, Dalton Bateman and Brock Patterson, but the young man I am really proud of was Cody Edwards. We didn’t know where he would fit in. Cody was a junior varsity player last year as a junior. He is not a real big guy. He worked hard to get himself on the field and when he got a chance, he made the most of it.”
John Busack led a steady group of linebackers. “Busack battled injuries and took ownership of the defense,” Gaddis said. Logan Galarno understands the game well. He was sick all week before the Cathedral game, and I had no idea. Christian Wichman just plays hard.”
Senior Brian Wichman was the leader of the defensive backfield which steadily improved all season. Juniors Chase Banister and Jason Kimmet came into their own.
East, which won its ninth consecutive league championship, was on a roll going into the tournament. “It’s tough to pull things together in the tournament,” Gaddis said. “A lot of things can happen. The East Central game, that was a huge win on the road. Keeping everyone together for such a long season is not always an easy thing to do.
“Believe it or not, the game we were most concerned about was when we drew East Central on the road. That was a tough one to handle. It was also during our break. We never had a two-week break to worry about. Those games against East Central never have been easy games.
“The other big win the kids will reflect on, and one that always is a big game, was (Columbus) North. The interest level is so high and we were on the big stage. Then we came from behind.”
After East won the sectional, it appeared it might stumble against a powerful Evansville Reitz team. Reitz scored easily on its first possession, then drove right back into the red zone after forcing East three-and-out. The Olympians stuffed them on defense and the offense responded.
“That stop against Reitz was big,” Gaddis said. “It would have been tough if they scored again. The kids kept their composure and played through it.”
Gaddis said his coaching staff really didn’t make much of an adjustment in that game.
“Our kids think ‘If this happens, what will our answer be?’ We put a lot on our players, but they need to understand what is going on. I really enjoyed that they could do that. They understood what we were trying to get done.”
Unfortunately, the season came to an end with a thud against two-time defending state champ Cathedral.
“It’s not easy,” Gaddis said. “The worst day of the year is turning your equipment in. You try to keep things in perspective. We’re a good football team; we haven’t gotten to (Cathedral’s) level yet.”
But as time heals the pain from that final game, East will understand all it accomplished.
“When these seniors came in, it wasn’t a particularly talented group,” Gaddis said. “What a career they’ve had. They weren’t great as freshmen, but they were great as seniors.”