Blessed with experience and one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, Avon entered the high school football season expecting to contend for a state championship.
Yet after three games, the Orioles in no way resembled a Class 6A contender. They stumbled to a 1-2 start and went into Week 4 questioning their identity.
But fast-forward to today.
Recharged, refreshed and resurgent, the sixth-ranked Orioles long ago cast aside doubts about their capabilities.
They enter tonight’s semistate final at No. 1 Center Grove on a nine-game winning streak and are confident of accomplishing their preseason objective.
“I think our team grew a lot after the two early season losses,” said sixth-year coach Mark Bless, a 1980 graduate of Greenwood Community High School. “In both of those games we played well enough to win, but the mistakes we made were crucial enough to lose.
“Certainly the two teams that beat us deserved it, but I felt like we were right there.”
Those two teams were Class 6A powers Hamilton Southeastern and Ben Davis. Both losses were by narrow margins, but that was of little consolation to the Orioles, who were determined to turn around their season.
And they did.
On Sept. 11, Avon evened its record with a 56-21 rout of Brownsburg and has been on a roll ever since. The Orioles opened the postseason with a 61-14 sectional win against Brownsburg, then avenged their loss Week 2 loss against Ben Davis with a 27-22 win against the Giants in the sectional final.
Then it was on to the regional, where Avon survived No. 5 Cathedral in a 37-34 double-overtime thriller.
Little wonder the Orioles have no doubts about their capabilities.
“As a coach, you always want to learn some lessons along the way, get better week by week, and I think we did that,” Bless said. “I think our players were serious enough and committed enough to be able to understand, through some criticism, possibly, that we have an opportunity to get better and be pretty respectable.
“Every single week we grew as a team. Certainly those two losses helped us pay attention to details a little stronger.”
No one has to convince Center Grove coach Eric Moore that the Orioles, who feature senior Michigan recruit Brandon Peters at quarterback, that Avon is a dangerous team.
One of several three-year starters for the high-scoring Orioles, Peters is only one of many reasons why they pose a threat to Center Grove’s own state championship aspirations.
“They have played great teams and won games by shootouts and by blowouts,” Moore said. “They have excellent speed and size are very much like the (Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference) teams that we play each year. Avon seems to be very physical and very well-coached.
“They have maybe the best QB this state has seen in a while. He is Peyton Manning-like in high school.”
Statistically, Peters’ numbers shine. He has completed 188 of 315 passes for 2,803 yards, 35 touchdowns and tossed only five interceptions. But beyond the numbers, he is a confident leader who makes optimum use of an array of offensive weapons, notably senior wide receiver Andrew Griffin and senior tight end/wide receiver Matt Moore.
Griffin has 75 catches for 1,134 yards and 18 touchdowns. Moore has 56 receptions for 680 yards and eight touchdowns.
“He’s a very good quarterback. He can make all the throws, but he runs our offense very well,” Bless said. “We have three (running) backs capable of moving the ball. They all offer a little something different.”
Those backs are juniors Corey DuPriest and Bryant Fitzgerald and senior Darian Love, and their stats are nearly identical. DuPriest has rushed for 573 yards and seven touchdowns. Love has 552 yards and five touchdowns. And Fitzgerald has 529 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“They can run the football downhill with big, physical backs and throw it outside to speed guys,” Moore said. “Their offensive line has tremendous size and strength and plays very hard.”
Not surprisingly, Bless holds the Trojans (12-0) in equally high regard.
“There’s a reason why they’re undefeated, especially playing in the MIC conference,” Bless said. “They execute their offense at a high level. They’re big, strong and fast, so they’re certainly very impressive to watch on film. When you face and offense like theirs that is highly efficient, you look at limiting, not completely stopping, an offense like that.
“We’ll definitely have our hands full with that task.”
Aug. 21;Plainfield;W 41-0
Aug. 28;at Ben Davis;L 49-42
Sept. 4;at Hamilton Southeastern;L 21-18
Sept. 11;Brownsburg;W 56-21
Sept. 18;Whiteland;W 34-0
Sept. 25;at Fishers;W 36-14
Oct. 2;Westfield;W 35-20
Oct. 9;at Zionsville;W 49-21
Oct. 16;Noblesville;W 46-14
Oct. 23;*at Brownsburg;W 61-14
Oct. 30;*Ben Davis;W27-22
Nov. 6;**Cathedral;W 37-34, 2 OT