NEW CARLISLE — Nearing the latter half of New Prairie's practice Wednesday afternoon, head coach Russ Radtke and his coaching staff were visibly and audibly upset with the effort their football team was putting in.
After grabbing and moving a defender to demonstrate how his offensive line should block on a certain play, Radtke motioned over to associate head coach Bill Gumm.
"Go turn the lights on," Radtke said. "We're heading over to the stadium for the rest of (practice)."
Gumm then walked over to a green golf cart with four electric-blue Powerade water jugs on the back and drove over to the game field. With the flip of a switch, he illuminated Amzie Miller Field that the Cougars will play Penn on for senior night tonight.
As soon as the field was lit, Radtke rounded up his players and told them a lackadasical attitude was why they were leaving the practice field for the game one. They headed over and tried to make the remainder of practice feel like as much of a game as possible — starters on the field running plays down the field with game-like playcalling and the backups on the sidelines.
"As soon as we practiced with the lights on, you could tell the intensity level went way up," said quarterback Chase Ketterer. "Whether guys just wanted to go home or were tired or whatever, we were just kind of going through the motions before. But as soon as we (went onto the game field), everything changed. It was just what we needed."
Typically, practicing under the lights doesn't mean anything more than a team trying to get some extra work in at dusk with the sun setting. But this is a move Radtke pulls out for the playoffs and other big games during the season as needed. Wednesday was the first time he moved practice under the stadium lights to extract more focus and effort from his team, and it did just the trick. It was a much-needed maneuver, considering a matchup with 6A powerhouse Penn lies ahead.
The Cougars are currently in the midst of the best regular season in program history, holding a No. 1 ranking in the state in 4A and a 6-0 record that includes a gutsy win over rival and 2018 4A state semifinalist, Mishawaka. While Radtke's team has certainly proved to many it's a legitimate contender with an electric offense led by Ketterer, a 1,500-plus pound offensive line and a sound defense capable of making stops in key situations, it carries a chip on its shoulder, wanting to prove more each week. And this week, more than anything, New Prairie wants to prove it belongs in the conversation for the state's best team by taking down a perennially-dominant Kingsmen team.
"A win against Penn could very well be the biggest one in school history," Gumm said. "It would be a program-definining one, for sure. It might not be a playoff game, but beating one of the most consistently-successful teams in Indiana would feel like winning (a playoff game)."
Friday marks only the second time the schools face off. It's not a natural rivalry between the two, and there isn't really any hatred for one another on either side. But the Cougars are taking this matchup somewhat personally.
Both Gumm and Ketterer stressed how much of an underdog they are in any sport when playing the Kingsmen, considering Penn's freshman class itself has more kids than all of New Prairie. That just provides more fuel to all the players though.
"When you're a smaller school like us, you always have something to prove," Ketterer said. "We want this win bad to prove to everyone we're as good of a team as we know we are. Last year we came into the game (with Penn) a little intimidated. Like, it's Penn. Everyone in the state knows who they are. We weren't ready for them, but this year we're way more confident and we know we can compete with them. What happened last year won't happen on Friday."
The Cougars will have a somewhat easier time taking home a victory than previously expected, as the Kingsmen's opening day starting quarterback Ron Powlus Jr. was ruled out for the year early in the season. But with a school like Penn, the dropoff of talent from a starter to his backup is minimal.
"It's like Alabama in the SEC Championship last year," Ketterer said. "You have Tua (Tagovailoa) go down with an injury and then all of a sudden you have Jalen Hurts come in. It's not like he's a scrub. Penn's kind of the same way. Just because they have their backup quarterback right now doesn't mean we'll have an easier of a time slowing them down. He's really good, too."
For Radtke, it doesn't matter who's taking snaps for the Kingsmen. They've been playing the same methodical, running offense for years now that has fostered plenty of success. In order to counter this, New Prairie's defense is going to have to use the same strategy it used against Mishawaka two weeks ago.
"We need to be extremely disciplined defensively," Radtke said. "What Penn does and what's worked so well for them is getting one yard here, three yards here, and then all of a sudden they might run a reverse or pass over the top of you for a big gain. What we need to do is consistently playing each play the same, sticking to our assignments and not have anybody go out of their way to make the big play. We did the same thing against Mishawaka and we always played with them in front of us. No offensive players really got behind our defense in that game."
Radtke and defensive coordinator Julio Cisneros both stress discipline and working as a collective unit as major keys to defensive success. Cisneros mentioned earlier this season that typically he doesn't want to see the flashy hard-hit; he'd rather see his guys stick to their assignments and do their jobs. That's what wins ballgames defensively.
As for how the matchup impacts the remainder of the season, Radtke is treating it as a great learning opportunity for his top-ranked 4A Cougars with the playoffs looming.
"We've only got about 56 days until the state championship," Radtke said. "With every team we go against now, we have to have that attitude that in four quarters, everything can get taken away from us. That's why we practiced under the lights. Sometimes we need to wake some kids up, and I think that happened... I think the opponents you play make you better. Playing teams like Penn, Mishawaka, St. Joe, Andrean, all those, they're a lot bigger schools than us and we can learn a lot by playing against them."