GOSHEN – Lee Etzler is no politician and his Churubusco High School football team would fail miserably at trying to convince anyone that they are different than what they truly are.
Etzler's kids will run over and through opponents – or at least give every last ounce of effort to do so – in order to win every football game. But with just over two minutes remaining against Northeast Corner Conference-rival Fairfield on Friday, the Eagles needed something special, as in their special teams, and that group enabled 'Busco to get on the bus with a 29-23 thrilling victory.
“Last week (a 35-16 loss at Culver Academy) was kind of like this week,” Etzler said. “We played hard, but mistakes got us in trouble.”
The victory kept Churubusco (7-1, 7-0 NECC) in the hunt for a conference championship along with Lakeland (8-0, 7-0). The teams will meet on Friday in Churubusco at 7 p.m.
Etzler has developed a program so good that it can actually be too good for its own good. Over the course of this season's first six weeks, 'Busco outscored its opponents 305 to 19. Etzler's kids simply were never challenged. However, games like the Eagles will see over the season's final three weeks are great in building toughness among the players according to the coach.
“It can be difficult (early),” Etzler said. “The good thing about the (late) season, hopefully, is that we can get some of this stuff ironed out.”
The Eagles had a multitude of penalties, a blocked punt which resulted in a Falcon touchdown, and enough defensive breakdowns that Fairfield was able to hold a 23-21 lead late in the game.
Churubusco was set to take over possession with just over two minutes remaining, but the problem with the Eagles needing to orchestrate a late drive against the clock is that their offense is not constructed to succeed in that.
'Busco runs the ball virtually every play of the game, which eats up time. When Etzler's team takes over possession deep in their own territory following a kickoff, trails, and only little more than 120 seconds are remaining, more often than not, it is trouble.
“We're not going to spread people out and take chunks of yardage through the air,” Etzler explained. “It does make you feel good having a nice kickoff return.”
Would a 70-plus yard kickoff return from senior Cory Miller suffice, coach? Because that is exactly what happened and the Eagles started their drive already in field goal range. This final drive was going to be like playing with house money for Etzler.
“Man, I don't know if that is something that you can really describe,” Etzler said of watching Miller run downfield leaving Falcons in his wake. “Even if Cory wouldn't have gotten down as close as he did, what a charge it is to your team.”
Fairfield (6-2, 6-2) went from elated to deflated in the time that it took Miller to break through an initial wedge and speed up the 'Busco sideline and the game was essentially over at that point.
Cody Conwell's five-yard scoring run in the final seconds sealed the outcome and the Eagles' ability to run on the final series at will was indicative of the evening – as it often is with this squad.
Churubusco senior running back Jason Nicodemus finished the night with 300 yards on 36 carries and a pair of scores, and as physically impressive as the Eagle offensive line and runners were, it was this group's mental fortitude when they repeatedly had their backs against the wall that was even more fun to watch.
“They are pretty tough kids in general,” Etzler said. “But one of our very top things, if not the top thing is to instill mental toughness in everything that we do.”