Whiteland football dominates sectional opener

Visiting Terre Haute North started Friday’s Class 5A sectional semifinal with a pair of impressive drives against second-ranked Whiteland.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, they only managed three points on those drives, and the Warriors were up to their usual tricks — and a few unusual ones — the rest of the way.

Whiteland piled up 277 first-half rushing yards. That was very Warrior-like. But coach Darrin Fisher’s club also threw in a touchdown pass, a fake punt that extended a touchdown drive, and an onside kick that added another possession to build a 42-3 halftime lead, force a running clock in the second half and cruise to a 63-3 victory.

The win improved the Warriors to 9-1 and vaulted them into a sectional championship matchup at No. 8 Franklin next Friday. Terre Haute North, ravaged by injury this season to the point the Patriots were down to 36 healthy players entering play Friday, ended its season 2-8.

“Anytime you can stop somebody in the red zone and turn a touchdown into a field goal, that’s a win,” Fisher said. “I thought the second time when we got them stopped (turnover on downs) inside the red zone, that was a momentum-changer. Then they got worn down.”

On the second drive Fisher referenced, Terre Haute North drove the ball to the Whiteland 9-yard line, but came away with no points after the Warriors’ defense forced a turnover on downs. Kayden Milligan’s pass breakup on fourth and goal gave the ball back to Whiteland, and the Warriors, who already led 7-3, never looked back.

From there, the Patriots generated just four non-penalty first downs. Meanwhile, Whiteland ground out 368 rushing yards overall. The Warriors’ offense only needed to run two third-down plays in the game’s first 36 minutes before they began inserting reserves into the action.

Slate Valentine had touchdown runs of 36 and 6 yards, while Maalik Perkins added 29- and 18-yard touchdown jaunts. Nyrius Moore-Smith, Devon Armstrong and Connor Grismer added touchdown runs for Whiteland.

“I’ve been here 18 years, and this is as good a (offensive line) group as I’ve had,” Fisher said, crediting it with a good chunk of the running game’s success. “They think and act and play as one. They think the same; they communicate.”

Moore-Smith lead the Warriors with 94 rushing yards on just three carries. Valentine added 76 yards and Peyton Emberton finished with 60, excluding a touchdown run that was called back due to a holding penalty.

Whiteland’s other touchdowns came from Cameron Cooper (a wide-open 33-yard pass from Kevin Denham on a play when the Patriots were selling out to stop the run) and Dalton Hughes (31-yard interception return). Hughes, Moore-Smith and Milligan each intercepted passes for the Warrior defense.

Terre Haute North coach Billy Blundell came away impressed with Whiteland’s rushing attack.

“They’re fast,” he said. “They’re well-coached, and they know what they’re doing. They’re hard to stop because you don’t know if they’re going inside or outside, and by the time you figure it out, they’re gone. They’re going to have a heck of a (tournament) run.”

On a night in which several sectional games throughout the state produced surprise results, Fisher was thrilled with the way the Warriors took care of business.

“I told this team I love being their coach,” Fisher said. “Momentum is following a positive event with a positive response. Some people get comfortable. They have a positive event, and they relax. Our guys have responded to positive events by practicing harder, and I think we’ve continued to elevate our play as the weeks have gone along. This was the best we’ve played in all three phases.”