SYRACUSE — Despite the performance from quarterback Will Kirkwood, who rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another, the NorthWood Panthers could not overcome the balanced attack of the Wawasee Warriors and dropped a heartbreaking 31-28 decision in the semi-final round of the Class 4A sectional.
The victory by Wawasee avenged a regular-season loss to NorthWood and propelled the Warriors into next week’s sectional championship game against Northern Lakes Conference (NLC) rival Concord.
The first quarter was a real barnburner, as NorthWood’s Dominic Miranda returned the opening kickoff 38 yards to near midfield, setting off the opening-stanza fireworks. Four plays later, the Panthers were in the end zone on a three-yard run by Kirkwood, who also rushed for 42 yards on the first two plays from scrimmage to help set up his own score. Brendan Widner’s PAT was good and the Panthers had a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
The Warriors answered quickly with a drive of their own, marching 70 yards in 11 plays, with the big gainer being a 39-yard run by junior running back Derrick Sorenson. Sorensen took the pigskin the final yard for a touchdown and Jordan Acton’s kick tied the game at 7 all.
Back came the Panthers, thanks to another tremendous kickoff return by Miranda to near midfield, setting up a 51-yard touchdown scamper by fullback Luke Edwards on the third play from scrimmage, by far his longest run of the year, to give NorthWood a 14-7 lead. Not to be outdone, the Warriors answered with a five-play drive of their own, again featuring a huge 41-yard run by Sorenson, with Gabe Rhodes taking it the final three yards to tie the score at 14 all with 2:35 still to play in the first quarter.
Finally, the two defenses decided enough was enough and as the second quarter began, the two teams exchanged punts before NorthWood mounted another drive deep into Warrior territory. Unfortunately, after a pass completion from Kirkwood to Travis Bear, the Wawasee defense forced a fumble which was recovered by the Warriors at their own 20-yard line. Five plays later, sophomore quarterback Gage Reinhard hooked up with classmate Clayton Cook on a crossing pattern and the fleet-footed receiver out-raced the Panther secondary, going 64 yards to give Wawasee their first lead of the night at 21-14.
The lead was short-lived, however, as NorthWood put together an eight-play, 78-yard drive that featured three pass completions from Kirkwood to senior wideout Nick Graber, the last a 20-yard toss for a touchdown that tied the score at 21 all with 1:50 remaining in the half. The Panthers then got a chance to take the lead when Connor Bunch picked off an errant Reinhard pass at the Warrior 48-yard line, but after driving to the Wawasee 19 with 10 seconds remaining, a Widner 36-yard field goal attempt was wide left, sending the teams to the locker room tied at 21.
After an exchange of punts on the first two possessions of the second half, Wawasee took a 24-21 lead on a 29-yard field goal by Acton midway through the third period. NorthWood then stormed back in front on a drive that included a seven-yard run on fourth down by punter Bear who avoided a potential blocked kick, saw an opening, and raced for the first down. A twisting 26-yard TD run by Kirkwood on the first play of the fourth quarter, dragging two Warrior tacklers into the end zone, put NorthWood in the lead at 28-24.
After another interception by the Panthers, this one by senior safety Dylan Risser, the Warrior defense rose up and forced a punt, giving the ball back to Wawasee at their own 24 with 4:26 left in the game. Six plays later, the deadly combination of Reinhard to Cook struck again on the exact same play as the first TD toss, this one going 39 yards for the go-ahead score to put the Warriors in the lead at 31-28 with two minutes remaining. NorthWood had one final chance but despite moving to near midfield, could go no farther as the Warriors took over on downs and ran three “victory formation” plays to seal the win and advance to the sectional final.
Kirkwood rushed for a season-high 92 yards and two scores to lead the Panthers, while Edwards added 66 yards and score on just four carries. Through the air, Kirkwood was an efficient 15 of 25 for 150 yards and the TD toss to Graber, who caught six of Kirkwood’s passes for 83 yards in his final game as a Panther. The Black Crunch defense was led by 11 tackles from senior middle linebacker Albert Gongwer, while Risser, Justice Smith, and Blake Cleveland added seven stops each.
Wawasee rushed for 212 yards, led by 111 and a score from Sorenson and 71 and a TD from Rhodes. Reinhard completed 12 of his 22 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns, both to Cook who caught three balls for 114 yards. Rhodes, Sorenson, and Austin Lutz led the Warrior defense with seven tackles apiece.
NorthWood’s season ends at 5-6 while Wawasee (7-4) travels to Concord for a rematch with the Minutemen (9-2), who crushed the Warriors 54-7 back Aug. 31.
*WAWASEE 31, NORTHWOOD 28
At Syracuse – Sectional Semi-Final
NorthWood 14 7 0 7 – 28
Wawasee 14 7 3 7 – 31
NW – Will Kirkwood 3 run (Brendan Widner kick)
W – Derrick Sorensen 1 run (Jordan Acton kick)
NW – Luke Edwards 51 run (Widner kick)
W – Gabe Rhodes 3 run (Action kick)
W – Clayton Cook 64 pass from Gage Reinhard (Acton kick)
NW – Nick Graber 20 pass from Kirkwood (Widner kick)
W – Acton 29 yd. FG
NW – Kirkwood 26 run (Widner kick)
W – Cook 39 pass from Reinhard (Acton kick)
Yards Rushing 218 212
Yards Passing 150 179
Passing (Comp/Att/Int) 15-25-0 12-22-2
Penalties (No./Yds.) 3-20 3-15
Punts (No./Avg.) 3-24 2-34
Fumbles (No./Lost) 1-1 1-0
Rushing – NorthWood (Kirkwood 12-92, TD; Edwards 4-66, TD; Tanner Cleveland 12-42; Blake Cleveland 4-9; Bear 2-9); Wawasee (Sorensen 14-111, TD; Rhodes 11-71, TD; Reinhard 10-26; Clark 2-4)
Passing – NorthWood (Kirkwood 15-25-0, 150 yds., TD); Wawasee (Reinhard 12-22-2, 179 yds., 2 TD)
Receiving – NorthWood (Graber 6-83, TD; Sauceda 3-29; Tanner Cleveland 4-14; Yoder 1-16; Bear 1-10); Wawasee (Cook 3-114, 2 TD; Elliot 5-16; Rhodes 4-49).