NEW CARLISLE — It's been two years since New Prairie football has taken home a sectional championship, and five since it played in the state championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Cougars have high aspirations of making the latter happen once again, but it isn't possible without first defeating Plymouth in the Class 4A Sectional 18 championship game Friday night at Amzie Miller Field.
"As a team, we're taking things week by week, getting ready for each opponent," said senior quarterback Chase Ketterer. "But I feel all of us have the thought in our minds that we're good enough to make it to Lucas Oil and plan on being down there in a few weeks."
New Prairie isn't short on confidence by any means, and it has the talent to back it up. Ketterer, one of the state's most prolific running quarterbacks, is paired up with a 1,000-yard tailback in senior Chris Mays. The two combined for 279 yards rushing and five offensive touchdowns in last week's 49-3 victory over Culver Academies in the sectional semifinal.
Such performances have become commonplace for a dynamic Cougars offense that all starts with its 1,500-pound offensive line. The unit has four players weighing in at well over 300 pounds, led by 6-foot-6, 315-pound sophomore Hunter Whitenack — a prospect getting recruited by by the likes of Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Iowa. He's at the forefront of the offensive line and the team's well-warranted confidence.
"We have our sights set on state and we know we have what it takes to get there," Whitenack said. "It's been a goal of ours all year to be able to make it to state and I think we've proved we're definitely good enough to make that happen."
New Prairie's matchup with Plymouth doesn't worry the offense all that much, but the defense's performance could well be indicative of how this one goes. The Pilgrims average just over 33 points per game, relying heavily on quarterback Joe Barron and a passing attack that averages north of 280 yards per game.
"It's no secret that they like to throw the ball," said Cougars associate head coach Bill Gumm. "And they throw it really well. Their receivers run excellent routes, they get open. They try to put receivers where you're not. Joe Barron does a nice job of finding them, but he's also a very mobile quarterback to where he's comfortable throwing in the pocket or on the run."
The Cougars defense has been their X-Factor most of the season so far, led by linebackers Taylor Adams and Brandon Kasinger. Both are exceptional at clogging running lanes and limiting yardage on the ground. Where defensive coordinator Julio Cisneros' unit has lacked at times, however, is with its pass defense.
In New Prairie's only loss of the season, three weeks ago to Elkhart Central, the Blazers completed a variety of passes downfield for big gains. Their receivers didn't have much trouble getting behind the Cougars secondary, turning some drives that looked to be over into an eventual six points.
In an effort to counter that, Cisneros recently inserted Ketterer into the starting defense as the free safety, or "robber," position. Ketterer's athleticism provides a nice spark to a New Prairie defense that limited the Eagles to just 74 yards on 9-of-26 passing and two interceptions last week. One of those turnovers was good for six points, courtesy of a smart play by Ketterer jumping in front of a crossing Culver Academies wide receiver.
"It's that time of the year again to where you can't hold anything back," Gumm said. "At certain times, if Chase is a better matchup against a certain receiver, then that's what we'll do. We can't hold him back and say, 'You're just going to play quarterback now.' We have to put our best matchups out there."
The Cougars will certainly need Ketterer's production offensively if they are to take home their first sectional title since 2017, but his play at safety might be more vital to the team's success. It should be an entertaining mental battle between him and Barron when Plymouth airs it out.
"It's awesome being a quarterback and playing that position because reading a quarterback's eyes means a lot," Ketterer said. "I can kind of notice when a guy fake looks off a guy and it's just a lot easier to read everything back there when I already know what quarterbacks do."
Class 4A Sectional 18
AT AMZIE MILLER FIELD
Plymouth (9-2) vs. New Prairie (10-1), 6:30 p.m.