INDIANAPOLIS – Bishop Luers knows how to bounce back from a blindside hit. That's why the Knights are football champions again.
We can talk about talent, and Luers has plenty starting with all-everything Jaylon Smith. We can talk about the benefits of Luers' Summit Athletic Conference schedule, playing the big boys all year long before the Class 2A high school tournament. We can talk about tradition, how it's easier to win when you've been here before. This is all valid chatter.
But when I look back at Luers' 40-28 win over Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter in the Class 2A state title Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, I'll chalk it up to two attributes within all of us, waiting to be tapped if we choose: resilience and willpower.
When players have been through the emotional roller coaster of a season the Knights went through, what's a suddenly tight game on the state's biggest stage?
A game that looked to be over when Luers went up 27-0 in the second quarter turned into a wild finish where the Knights needed two gut-check drives to claim their fourth straight Class 2A title.
“Our hearts dropped a little,” cornerback Kendrick Mullen said when the lead evaporated. “We had a little adversity. But we've been battling adversity all year. We know how to bounce back from tough times like that.”
Mullen captured it exactly. Luers was hit this season by adversity unlike any other when longtime coach Matt Lindsay was fired for off-field conduct. Freshman coach Steve Keefer – who led the Knights to a state title way back in 1985 – took over a shocked and confused group of players.
Outsiders wondered if they'd be able to regroup, figure out their identity and fight their way back to the state finals.
“I told the kids when I took over, forget what's happened and look forward,” Keefer said. “Be positive. Build a positive program. And they bought into it.”
Keefer found himself giving an offshoot of that speech late in the game against Ritter. It had all come so easily at first, but Ritter averaged 51 points a game for a reason. Their quarterback Jake Purichia, found his groove. He finished with 238 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Weird stuff started happening, too, such as Smith being called for “hurdling” when he jumped over a would-be tackler. Keefer said he's seen that penalty called once before in his 43 years of coaching, and that was in 1980.
Two plays later, Ritter's Jake Hagan (who also caught three TD passes) returned a Luers punt 38 yards for a score and cut the margin to 27-21.
“The fourth quarter I called the seniors and the whole team together and challenged them,” Keefer said. “The seniors stepped up and got the job done.”
Luers faced another pivotal moment. The Knights fell back on the style of play Keefer favors, affectionately known as smash-mouth football. It's a style that requires a huge measure of will, both from the offensive linemen and the running backs.
“I was shocked,” Luers senior running back TyVel Jemison said. “I couldn't believe they were back in the game. We decided to buckle down and get it done.”
Luers staged two essential final drives, the first one 63 yards, the second one 60 yards. Fifteen of the 16 plays in the drive were running plays. Jemison finished off the first drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Smith capped the last drive with a 16-yard scoring run.
Smith, who is headed to Notre Dame as a linebacker, finished with 150 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
The final two drives came from deep within, that reserve of energy that champions seem to possess.
“It was all the way willpower, 100 percent,” Smith said. “All the seniors came together and said we were going to take charge and do whatever it took to win, and that's what we did.”
Luers became the first 2A school to win four consecutive titles and only the third overall. Warren Central won four straight 5A titles from 2003 to 2006 and Lafayette Central Catholic won its fourth straight Class A title Friday night.
There was little to no immediate talk of a fifth straight title next season. Luers loses two dozen seniors and several and will move up to Class 3A next season under the new IHSAA success rules.
There are other changes to come, too, as the school hires a new head coach. Keefer said he does not want to return next season, except to coach freshmen again.
This rocky Luers season, like the tail end of the final game, will require a little exhaling. It's gratifying to overcome adversity. It's also exhausting.
“This is what Luers football is all about,” Mullen said, “digging deep down and playing for the 'Luers' on our chests.”
That was the mission all along. Mission accomplished.