Whiteland football makes its long-awaited championship debut

“Break the rock.”

When Darrin Fisher took over as the head football coach at Whiteland in 2005, he brought with him the motto that he’d borrowed from longtime University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz; Fisher had grown to admire Ferentz during his nine years coaching in the Hawkeye State.

The idea behind the slogan is simple — a rock won’t get broken with one swing of a hammer. It often takes many swings, and you never know which swing will be the last. So you keep swinging.

In Fisher’s 18th season with the Warriors, they’ve got the rock cracked up pretty good. On Saturday night, they’ll try to smash it to pieces.

Whiteland makes its first-ever state championship game appearance this weekend when it faces Valparaiso in the Class 5A title tilt.

“Our culture has been built day by day by day, by 17 years’ worth of teams, and all the coaches that have coached with us in the past,” Fisher said. “This is the place where we had always envisioned where it was going to go. The whole deal with ‘Break the Rock’ is you never really know which swing is going to get it done; there was a lot of years we thought this would be the time, and you just never know. You’ve just got to keep swinging the hammer.”

With 32 seniors on the roster, the Warriors came into the year with a veteran team featuring several returning starters — including five on the offensive line alone (six if you count tight end Cameron Cooper) in front of a wealth of experienced skill position players. The team had some voids to fill on defense, but it did so with depth, using its best athletes on both sides of the ball as often as possible. A dozen different players are on the Whiteland two-deep in at least two of the three phases.

When Fisher and his staff started piecing it all together during summer workouts, everyone involved knew that 2022 could end up being a special season.

“We were playing really tough teams in the summertime, and we started to compete really well,” senior running back Peyton Emberton said. “That’s when I knew, ‘We’ve got something here.’ And we just keep getting better.”

The Warriors’ journey started with nonconference wins over Columbus East and Lawrence North; after defeating Mid-State Conference rivals Decatur Central and Franklin by three touchdowns each, they moved into the top spot in the statewide Class 5A polls for the first time in their history.

But then came a bump in the road. Whiteland showed some blemishes in a 47-23 win over a less-than-formidable Perry Meridian team, then said goodbye to their No. 1 ranking and perfect record in a 35-21 loss at Martinsville.

That defeat served as a wake-up call — one that the Warriors have answered by stringing together seven straight victories — won by an average margin of 30 points.

“There was a time in the middle of the year when we weren’t practicing well, and then we lost the one football game that we lost,” Fisher said. “At that point, the kids made a decision that they were going to get back to giving everything that they had. You either humble yourself, or somebody humbles you. We were humbled, and they responded unbelievably well.”

With last week’s 21-7 semistate victory at Castle, the Warriors improved to 12-1 and put themselves onto the state’s biggest stage. Many in and around Whiteland believed during the preseason that this could be the last football team left standing in Johnson County this fall; as it turns out, it’ll play the final high school game in the state this year.

With a spot in that game, of course, come potential distractions. A different practice routine, especially with the game on a Saturday. More hype and more well-wishers in the hallways during the week. More interview requests. More of everything. That’s where that seasoning that comes with 32 seniors comes in handy — these Warriors have tried to keep the blinders on all week and just keep on working.

“Are you going to do it or not?” senior fullback and linebacker Jakarrey Oliver said. “Are you going to let (making state) keep giving you a big head, or are you going to be able to go to practice and practice without thinking about that?”

“We’re just preparing this week like it’s just another game,” senior linebacker and receiver Brady Stanifer added. “Obviously it means something more than just another game; you can’t ignore that. But at the end of the day, the same preparation every single week. You’ve just got to trust our game plan, trust our coaches and go out there and execute.”

Fisher — who’s about as genuinely a “be where your feet are” coach as there is — hasn’t allowed himself to think about what it might be like to stand out on that Lucas Oil Stadium turf and hold a state championship trophy in his arms. Some of his players have no doubt at least imagined it for a second, but the Warriors’ culture is built around swinging that same hammer the same way every single day, banging away at that rock.

So that’s what they’ve done this week. That’s what got them this far. They’re not going to stop swinging until the clock runs out on Saturday night.

“I’m so proud of our kids and our coaching staff; they’ve worked so incredibly hard,” Fisher said. “Everybody knows it’s the work that you do when the lights aren’t on, that nobody sees, that really goes behind it, and they’ve put their heart and their soul into everything. We’re one step away from the goal that they had set for themselves, and that’s pretty cool.”