INDIANAPOLIS — The Tri-Central Trojans have apparently learned a few things since their last meeting with Eastern Hancock.
Eastern Hancock defeated Tri-Central 47-35 in the season opener for both teams on Aug. 23, but Tri-Central controlled the rematch from the start. Cody Howell threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score to help Tri-Central defeat the Royals 20-10 Friday afternoon in the Class A state football final at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Howell threw two early interceptions, but he made several critical plays to make up for them. He finished with 167 yards passing for Tri-Central (14-1), which won in its first finals appearance.
"We feel very humbled with the opportunity to be able to call ourselves state champions," Tri-Central coach George Gilbert said.
Garrett Kelley added 78 yards and a touchdown for the Trojans.
Spencer Gilbert carried 28 times for 145 yards and a touchdown for Eastern (14-1). Gilbert entered the game averaging 198 yards per game and had scored 38 touchdowns, but the Trojans mostly held him in check.
"We just were going to take gaps away, we were going to take away his cutback," coach Gilbert said. "We wanted to do that. We knew he was going to get some yards. We wanted to slow him down. We knew we couldn't stop him, he's too good of an athlete, and we wanted everyone else to beat us. And in that process, our kids came out and thumped them."
Eastern Hancock wasn't expecting its star running back to be bottled up.
"It was just good, team defense," said Eastern Hancock coach Pat Echeverria. "A lot of teams have tried to do things to try to slow him down and it hasn't worked. They're one of the first teams who have been able to just line up and kind of do what they do and contain our offense."
Eastern averaged 56 points per game this season and hadn't scored fewer than 29 points in a game all season. Eastern had scored at least 60 points in seven consecutive games during one stretch.
Tri-Central's defense improved throughout the season. The Trojans entered Friday's game having allowed just 34 points in five state tournament games.
After Eastern Hancock turned the ball over on downs to start the game, Tri-Central responded with a scoring drive. Kelley's 1-yard touchdown run gave the Trojans a 6-0 lead. They missed the extra point.
Eastern Hancock reached midfield late in the first half, but Logan Splater's pass was incomplete. It was the third incomplete pass by the Royals on fourth down in the first half for a team that threw just 12 passes per game heading into the final.
Tri-Central took advantage when Howell found Seth Blunk behind the defense for a 23-yard touchdown to increase the Trojans' lead to 12-0 with 43 seconds left in the first half.
The Trojans finally got on the board. Cooper Henderson caught a 24-yard pass from Splater to put them in scoring range. Henderson made a 39-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to cut Tri-Central's lead to 12-3.
Eastern Hancock, which generally doesn't punt, even from its territory, converted just 1 of 5 fourth downs in the first half. They converted just 1 of 7 for the game.
"We were prepared for them not punting, so we were ready for it," Howell said. "Field position was huge. That was the number one key for our win -- field position."
Midway through the third quarter, Howell found Jade Pickett down the middle for 39 yards to move the ball to the Royals' 16. Howell finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run, and a conversion pass to Dillon Smith bumped the lead to 20-3 with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
Gilbert finally broke through with a 4-yard touchdown run with 6:14 to go, but Tri-Central got the ball back and ran out the clock. The Trojans ran 42 times for 191 yards.
"We were going to run it down their throats and that's what we did," Howell said.