The 605 games played by Whiteland football teams since 1964 were a buildup to what took place Saturday night.
Making their first appearance in a state championship game, the Warriors engaged in a wild, can-you-top-this showdown against Valparaiso inside Lucas Oil Stadium for the right to be called the Class 5A champion.
The Warriors fell short, 35-31, in an epic battle packing as much entertainment value as importance.
Coach Darrin Fisher’s crew, playing before what was clearly the largest and loudest of the 12 partisan crowds during the weekend, sent those in blue and orange home with memories to last a lifetime.
Whiteland finishes with a 12-2 record.
“They showed a lot of courage,” Fisher said of his squad. “The courage to hit. The courage to be different, not be average. They’ve worked their tails off since Jan. 1. The work they did without the lights on got us to this point.”
The game featured seven lead changes, with the Vikings holding the upper hand when it most mattered.
Whiteland had gone ahead 31-28 on Kevin Denham’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Jakarrey Oliver with 5:32 left in the fourth quarter — plenty of time for Valpo to respond with a TD of its own if able to move downfield against the Warriors’ defense.
Starting at their own 20, the Vikings mounted a 16-play drive that consumed all but 19 seconds of the remaining time. Mixed in were four third-down conversions, the first being a 22-yard strike from quarterback Justin Clark to Ian Wilson on a third and 18 from Valpo’s own 12.
With time winding down and Valparaiso at the Warrior 11, Clark threw left to senior Rocco Micciche, who rumbled toward the goal line, just making it in for the winning points.
With only 19 seconds left, Whiteland didn’t have enough time to rally.
The Warriors finished being penalized 11 times for 88 yards. Valpo also struggled in that area, being flagged 10 times for 71 yards.
“We made a lot of mistakes today. Very uncharacteristic of us to have dead-ball fouls and those kinds of things,” Fisher said. “You’ve got to give Valparaiso the credit. They made one more play.
“That was two lions in a cage, and whose will to win was going to win out in the end.”
All of 13 seconds were required for Whiteland to make its initial imprint on the game.
Sophomore Maalik Perkins hauled in the opening kickoff at the 2-yard line, spotted what seemed like acres of green along the right side, located a new gear and completed his 98-yard run to paydirt and a just-like-that 7-0 lead.
The Warriors’ next kickoff was a pooch attempt smothered by senior free safety Brady Stanifer at the Valpo 38.
Whiteland wasn’t able to capitalize by producing more points, but an interception by Warriors junior defensive back Andrian Kolleigbo put the offense back in business at the Vikings 39. That resulted in David Mathis splitting the uprights on a 36-yard field goal try to put Whiteland ahead, 10-0, with 3:56 remaining in the first quarter.
Valparaiso then mounted a 10-play, 56-yard drive, capped by Clark being flushed out of the pocket and choosing to call his own number for a 12-yard touchdown run early in the second.
The junior tested the same left end for an 11-yard scoring run to give the Vikings their first lead, 14-10, with just under five minutes left in the half.
Whiteland sophomore Slate Valentine’s 6-yard TD burst gave it a 17-14 advantage at 2:15; Clark’s 60-yard scoring pass to Julian Stokes only 56 ticks later made it seem as though the Vikings were going to lead, 21-17, at intermission.
Not so fast.
Again the Warriors struck paydirt, Denham finding junior Gunnar Hicks on a 34-yard pass play with 18 seconds left. Denham put the ball right over the reach of Valpo defensive back T.J. Watkins, with Hicks catching it at the 20 and taking it the rest of the way.
The Vikings went up, 28-24, on Clark’s 1-yard run on fourth and goal at 6:15 of the third period. Oliver’s score was Whiteland’s lone second-half touchdown.
Defensively, Jordan Palmer led the Warriors with 12 tackles, followed by end Mason Darlington and linebacker Dalton Hughes with 11 apiece.
And while a special class of seniors has now exhausted its football eligibility, Stanifer believes Saturday night is just the beginning of new and exciting roads for the program to experience in the years ahead.
“I can’t thank the community enough. It’s something they’ve never been able to witness,” said Stanifer, who finished with five tackles. “I promise you, these younger players and guys coming into high school, they’re going to do it.
“Be on the lookout and keep supporting us, because the coaches know what they’re doing and they’ll get the job done.”