Sometimes the harsh reality of sports is that a team is measured by its success in the postseason.
For some teams, that reality is unjust. One such team that would fall into that category is the Columbus North football squad.
This season, the Bull Dogs put together their best regular season since Columbus split into North and East in 1973. North won its first seven games, went 8-1 in the regular season and won its first playoff game.
“It’s awesome to accomplish all of that,” senior running back Mitchell Burton said following Friday’s 41-14 loss to Center Grove. “I wish we could have got the sectional title, but we did pretty good, and I’m pretty proud of my team.”
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Unfortunately for the Bull Dogs, they ran into the same roadblock they’ve run into now five of the past six seasons. Center Grove, now 10-1, is the defending Class 6A state champion. The Trojans also won the 5A state title in 2008, which was the year after North last beat them.
Friday’s loss was especially painful because the Bull Dogs had the best team they’ve had since that 2007 squad came within a touchdown of playing in the state finals.
Many North fans thought this might be the year the Bull Dogs could take down Center Grove.
“It’s not going to sink in right now because we’re in pain,” North coach Tim Bless said. “Everybody is unhappy when you end your season with a bitter loss. But as we reflect on this season, we’re going to be very proud of this senior class and what they accomplished for returning Bull Dog football to excellence.”
That senior class featured several standouts, including Burton and quarterback Triston Perry, who will graduate as the second-leading rusher and passer, respectively, in school history.
Also gone will be four of the five offensive linemen, all four defensive linemen, middle linebacker and leading tackler Tucker Payne and safety Harley Huser, who also was a big-time threat in the passing and return games. Mark Salle-Tabor, who was a solid kicker and punter, also graduates.
But the Bull Dogs have enough key players returning that they should be able to contend for a Conference Indiana title again next season. Leading receivers Jaylen Flemmons, Trey Vincent and Tristan Bailey will be back, as will three of the top four linebackers and three of the four defensive backs, led by Division I prospect J.D. Harris.
Sophomore Trenton Kelley and junior Cortez Bandy will have big shoes to fill as they look to replace Perry and Burton at quarterback and tailback.
“It was an awesome senior class and so many of those kids were impact players,” Bless said. “However, as we look through the roster, we have a lot of young talent that played big roles for us this season. Then, we had a very successful JV and a very successful freshman season, so the future is certainly bright.”
Both the JV and freshman teams went 8-1 this season.
Whether North will have to go through Center Grove again the next two years could be decided this week. If defending Class 5A state champion Fort Wayne Snider wins its regional game against Mishawaka on Friday, the Panthers will move up to 6A under the IHSAA’s tournament success factor.
Westfield is primed to move from 5A to 6A because of a jump in enrollment, and Indianapolis Tech might be knocking on the door, as well. Cathedral needs a win against Ben Davis on Friday to remain in 6A.
So how does that effect the Bull Dogs?
When the IHSAA last classified the teams two years ago, North was the smallest of the 32 teams in 6A. So if Snider or Westfield, or both, move up to 6A, one or two teams will have to move down to 5A, assuming the IHSAA doesn’t mess with the 32-school set up at the 6A level.
One of those teams moving down will be Cathedral, if it loses on Friday. Another might be North.
Moving down to 5A, however, won’t guarantee the Bull Dogs postseason success. If Columbus East, which has beaten North four of the past five years, makes it to the 5A state finals this year, the Olympians would stay in 5A. Otherwise, they move back down to 4A.
Either way, it will be an interesting rest of the postseason and offseason to find out how things will shake out for the next two years.
If the Bull Dogs are lucky, they’ll avoid Center Grove.
Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected] or 812-379-5628.