Whiteland’s home football opener next Friday against Center Grove is a big, big game in the eyes of Warrior fans.
It will be for the team, too. Just not yet.
While everyone involved with Whiteland’s program is surely hoping to stun the Trojans in Week 2, there is something far more pressing on the team’s mind — a Week 1 showdown with New Palestine on Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“That’s all we’ve thought about,” Whiteland coach Darrin Fisher said. “There isn’t anything beyond what that opener is. There has been no talk of anything else other than the opener by anybody in this building. So that’s good; our focus has been good.”
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Part of what’s keeping the Warriors’ minds on New Palestine is how evenly matched the two teams have been over the years. Between 2005 and 2013, Whiteland faced the Dragons nine times, winning five. Four of the games were decided by six points or fewer, including one in overtime.
New Palestine has been the more successful team of late, posting a 41-2 mark over the past three seasons. The Dragons won the Class 5A state title in 2014 and were runner-up last year. Whiteland won sectional titles in 2013 and 2014, but it has not advanced past the regional since 1999.
This year, the two teams are in the same sectional — so it’s even more important for Whiteland to establish itself with a strong performance.
Additionally, having the game at Lucas Oil figures to make it an even bigger deal for both teams. For high school players, many of them Colts fans, Friday will be huge.
“Playing in Lucas Oil Week 1 is going to be very exciting,” senior linebacker Logan Mullinix said. “It’s going to be my first time playing there, and I know that it’s going to be a different atmosphere and it’s just going to be a different feel.”
The game fits well into Fisher’s ideal strategy of loading up the nonconference schedule with tough opponents to prepare his team for life in the Mid-State Conference.
“You like to have a game that’s even, and you like to have a game that stretches you,” the coach explained. “And we’ve got one game that’s even and two games that are going to stretch us, and there’s no doubt about that.”
Doing so in the past has worked well — Whiteland has won the past three Mid-State championships, claiming victory in 19 of its last 20 league games. It has also helped make the Warriors a formidable opponent come postseason time.
“Our goal is always the same,” Fisher said. “We want to be the team nobody wants to play in October. That’s really what we want. You want to have those traits. You want to be emotional. You want to execute under pressure. You want to be physical; you want to be mentally tough. You want to be able to do those things so that when people see you get off the bus, or they see your name on the schedule, they go, ‘Oh — we’ve got our work cut out for us.'”
Facing New Palestine and Center Grove right out of the gate should give the Warriors a very clear idea of where they stack up right away — what they’re good at, and what they need to get better at.
Last year’s schedule didn’t offer that. Forced to fill a late vacancy in the opener, Whiteland wound up with a game against South Dearborn that it won 66-0. Great for making fans happy and getting many reserves into the game, but not so much for getting an accurate self-assessment.
The following week at Center Grove, the Warriors lost 37-0.
“Last year, our opener wasn’t quite one of those even games that we like,” Fisher said, “and it hurt us Week 2.”
For now, though, this year’s Week 2 game isn’t on the radar. The Warriors will have their hands full with the Dragons, and that’s who has their attention until Friday night is over.
Coach: Darrin Fisher
Last year: 7-3, lost to Columbus East 28-14 in Class 5A sectional first round
Who’s back: Offense — Jace Carpenter, senior QB; Edwin Cisneros, senior RB; Anthony Schantz, senior RB; Ryan Hammond, junior RB; Levi Parks, senior RB; Iyan Pelfree, sophomore RB; Preston Phillips, junior RB; Jaylen Storms, senior WR; Joe Leistner, junior WR; TJ Singh, senior OT; Garrett Crowthers, senior OG; Mitchell Ashbrook, senior OL. Defense — Ryder Emberton, senior DT; Camden Lilly, junior DT; Alex Reed, sophomore DT; Logan Mullinix, senior LB; Ryan Hahn, senior LB; Austin Cook, junior LB; Djimmon Ogega, senior CB; Cole Warweg, senior CB; Camron Ciampa, junior DB; Tanner Milam, junior S; Gared Kleyn, senior S; Jacob Ballain, senior K/P.
New kids on the block: Hunter Smith, junior TE; Garrett Curtis, junior OL; Greg Jones, junior OL; Logan Kidwell, sophomore DL; Elvis Garza, junior DL; Sam Walls, junior DL.
Outlook: The Warriors will be breaking in several new starters this season, but most of them saw varsity action a year ago. Perhaps more importantly, the new faces will be filling in around some strong veteran talent, including a third-year starter at quarterback in Carpenter and three defensive stars who were Junior All-State picks in 2015 — Ogega, Emberton and Mullinix. Whiteland also has a big weapon on special teams in Ballain. The schedule is completely unforgiving early, but it should set the Warriors up well to make a run at a fourth straight Mid-State Conference championship — and perhaps more.
Fisher says: “There’s a maturity process that’s going to happen with us. I think from a talent standpoint defensively, it’s definitely there. … We’ve got three outstanding football players, one at every level of our defense, returning. So when I say we’ve got seven new starters on defense, we’ve got the right guys to build around.”
First & 10 with … Logan Mullinix, Whiteland senior linebacker
1. What would you consider your team’s greatest strength going into this season?
Our team’s greatest strength is our brotherhood. We’re all very close friends, and we play as one family out there.
2. What’s something you feel that the team still needs to improve upon?
I feel like this team has a lot of leaders, and not everyone can lead at once, so we just have to listen to each other and work as a team.
3. “One game at a time” clichés aside, which game on your schedule are you looking forward to the most?
The game I’m looking forward to the most is Week 2, Center Grove at home. Two years ago we had them here, and we should have won that game, so I’m looking forward to having them back here again. We should take this one.
4. If you could pick a theme song for the 2016 Warriors, what would it be?
“All I Do Is Win” (by DJ Khaled).
5. What’s the most critical part of your pregame routine? Any particular superstitions?
Sit in my locker, put in my headphones, listen to my playlist. Other than that, I don’t have anything else.
6. What is your least favorite football team, pro, college or otherwise? How come?
Got to be the New England Patriots. I’m a Colts fan, and (Tom) Brady — I just don’t like Brady.
7. If you could sit down for dinner with one athlete, who would it be?
If I could sit down for dinner with one athlete, it’d probably Wilber Marshall, a linebacker for the Florida Gators and the ’85 Super Bowl Bears. My dad went to high school with Wilber, and all he can talk about is how much of a player he was — and I’ve been looking through some highlights of him, and he was a dog.
8. What’s the biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s team?
Last year, we had a lot of returning starters, and this year we have a couple, but I feel like we have a lot of people in new spots.
9. Whiteland fans will be proud of this team because …
We’re going to give everything we’ve got every game, and we’re going to have a good record this year.
10. If you could write the script for the 2016 season, how would it end?
Whiteland hoisting up the trophy in Lucas Oil.
2016 football schedule
Friday;New Palestine;8:30 p.m.*
Aug. 26;Center Grove;7 p.m.
Sept. 2;at Decatur Central;7 p.m.
Sept. 9;Franklin;7 p.m.
Sept. 16;Avon;7 p.m.
Sept. 23;at Martinsville;7 p.m.
Sept. 30;Mooresville;7 p.m.
Oct. 7;at Plainfield;7 p.m.
Oct. 14;Greenwood;7 p.m.
* — at Lucas Oil Stadium