Nathan Krohne and his teammates along Center Grove’s offensive line have opened up impressive holes for wingback Conner Stapleton and the Trojans’ high-powered running game all season.
Stapleton finally got a chance to return the favor.
Krohne, a 6-3, 230-pound guard, scooped up a fumble deep in Center Grove territory in the closing minutes of a 42-7 sectional win over Columbus North on Friday night and knew just what to do with it. The senior caught the ball on a bounce, broke a tackle and took off down the left hash in a footrace that seemed part dash and part marathon.
The crowd rose to its feet — at least those few who had not already been standing all game — as Krohne lumbered into the clear.
“It was almost too good to be true,” said Krohne, who just missed a recovery on an earlier series. “I kept waiting for the ref to blow it dead, but it kept going. I saw Conner coming up and that was good because I was starting to get winded.”
With North’s speedy Josh Holt gaining on him by midfield, a back had Krohne’s back.
Stapleton streaked in from behind the play with Holt in his sights, creating just enough interference to clear the path to the end zone.
It was a dream that came to life for a lineman who had often talked with teammates about getting a chance.
“I always said, ‘If I get a hold of that ball, there’s no way I’m stopping,’” said Krohne, who was mobbed by teammates in a raucous end zone celebration. “That has been my dream. It’s every lineman’s dream. Even in Bantam League, I never got to score.
“I’ve been a lineman all my life and finally got to score.”
For the record, Nathan, I clocked your run at 12 seconds, from scoop to paydirt, an impressive mark for a big guy in full pads.
It was the perfect bookend to a most unusual offensive evening for the Trojans that opened with a score on the first play of the game. It also is one that certainly will produce sleepless nights for regional foe Castle.
The Class 5A No. 3 Knights
(12-0), who beat Jeffersonville
50-29, visit No. 6 Center Grove (11-1) Friday night (8 p.m.) for the regional title. The two teams last played in a 2008 regional, a mud-soaked 49-7 Trojans’ road win.
Center Grove went on to win the state title that year and has captured two of the past three regional crowns. Coach Eric Moore has never lost a regional contest.
The undefeated Knights, however, did not come this far to roll over.
“I can promise you this, we are not going to be intimidated by anybody up north,” Castle coach John Hurt told the Evansville Courier. “We will go up there with guns blazing. We will give it 110 percent. Center Grove is a great football team and (coach) Eric Moore is a good friend. They do things the right way.
“We are going into a hostile environment. But we will let it all hang out and have a lot of fun.”
When Hurt says guns blazing, he speaks the truth. Senior quarterback Mitch Gilles leads an offense that puts up 44 points a game, most through the air. Gilles threw for three scores in defeating the Red Devils.
The two share one common opponent in Terre Haute North. Castle defeated the Patriots, 35-24, in the season-opener. Center Grove had a tougher time, with a 17-15 win in Week 4.
The Knights’ offense has particularly hit its stride, putting up 56, 56, 49 and 50 points in the last four games.
Gilles, who was suspended the first two games of the season, averages 266 passing yards a contest, connecting of 64 percent (138 of 214) of his throws for a gaudy 11-yard average. If there is a thorn, it is the nine picks he has thrown.
Senior wideouts Jon Marc Anderson and Cameron Parus have caught 119 balls between them; they average more than 17 yards a catch.
Castle has a 1,000-yard rusher in junior Andrew Finch (5.46 yards per carry).
The Trojans, meanwhile, did nothing to dissuade the view that they are one of the top running teams in the state against Columbus North. Alex Lucas led the way with 153 yards on just 14 carries.
Center Grove showed that it is capable of unleashing much more diversity from its complex wing-T setup.
Junior quarterback Luke Calvert threw three scores in an impressive display of touch and range, hitting 7 of 11 for 119 yards.
Just as the ball bounced right for Krohne in his 89-yard fourth-quarter run, it found a Trojan at the start of the game, too. Drew Wozniak was ready for the Bull Dogs’ opening onside kick, taking it on the bounce and racing 51 yards to make it 7-0 Center Grove just nine seconds into the game.
The list of superlatives is long for this Trojan team that has battled through backfield injuries to emerge as one of the favorites to claim the 5A title.
The taming of the Bull Dogs showed a team that clearly is clicking.
The depth and focus of Center Grove was on display: three touchdown passes, an alert special teams play, six tackles for loss, an interception in the end zone, a solid kicking game and heads-up line play that turned the offense’s only turnover into an 89-yard score.
Oh, yeah, don’t forget about one of the top running games in the state, too, aided by Krohne, a converted defensive lineman who no doubt is being offered oxygen in jest by his teammates after his gallop. That’s alright, Nathan, just remind them that your 89-yards-a-carry average leads the team.
“We’ve overcome a lot of struggles with our team,” Krohne said. “We’ve proved people wrong. We have really overcome hurdles and come together as a team.
“It’s full steam ahead.”
Clearly, just as it did for the senior lineman, the ball is bouncing the Trojans’ way.
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. He is contributing special football columns throughout the high school playoffs.