By DAVID VANTRESS
THE GOSHEN NEWS
A sluggish start on Homecoming Night slowed down NorthWood Friday, and the Panthers struggled at times on offense in a 21-16 loss to visiting Wawasee at Andrews Field.
“We didn’t deserve this one.” NorthWood coach Scott Hoover said.
“Their playmakers made the plays, and ours didn’t.”
The Panthers (3-2 overall, 1-2 NLC) had several chances to pull this one out late, but misfired on offense in the Wawasee red zone.
Wawasee (2-3, 1-2), after stopping the Panthers on their first possession, drove 68 yards to an opening score, with Gage Reinhard connecting with Austin Lutz on an 8-yard scoring strike set up by a 41-yard Brandin McCulloch run. With 6:05 left in the first, Wawasee led 7-0.
NorthWood countered with a 25-yard Connor Miller field goal with 6:18 left until halftime.
The Panthers forced a fumble on a long Warrior pass play on the ensuing drive, and then cashed in several plays later on an 18-yard TD run by Luke Edwards. A failed PAT left the score 9-7 NorthWood with 2:08 left in the second.
NorthWood appeared to be on the cusp of another score late in the half, driving to the Wawasee 23. But a muffed snap was recovered by the Warriors with under a minute to play.
With the ball to start the second half, the Warriors could have been content to take a knee and head for the locker room.
They were not.
Wawasee struck quickly with a couple of long pass plays and cashed in fast with a 31-yard pass from Reinhard to Lutz. The Warriors, instead of trailing, 9-7, instead went into the locker room up 14-9 – with momentum and the ball to start the second half.
What did the Warriors do with that momentum?
They struck again just as quickly, this time getting a 44-yard pass from Reinhard to Jordan Elliott. With 9:32 left in the third, Wawasee led 21-9.
The Panthers had an answer, however, driving 82 yards and hitting pay dirt on an 18-yard pass from Will Kirkwood to Travis Bear to draw to within five at 21-16 with 1:24 left in the third.
And in this see-saw game, it was the Warriors’ turn, and Wawasee had an answer, once again mixing up the pass and run to perfection as drive to the Panther 12. But the NorthWood defense stuffed Reinhard on a QB sneak on fourth-and-1, and the Panthers had a chance for a game-winning drive.
They seemed to be putting together just that, getting to the Wawasee 15 before that drive stalled on an incomplete pass on fourth-and- nine.
The Warriors went three-and-out and the Panthers got the ball back with good field position at the Warrior 37.
But on the first play – with under a minute left in regulation – a Will Kirkwood pass was intercepted by Warrior senior defensive back Brandin McCulloch, who returned it to the N 19. From there, the Panthers ran out the clock.
First-year Wawasee coach Josh Ekovich was proud of his team’s fight, especially coming up with several key late defensive stops.
“Any NLC win is great,” Ekovich said. “We didn’t get down there at the end, and our guys made some plays when they had to.”
Wawasee hosts Plymouth next week. NorthWood travels to Northridge.