ELKHART — Now New Prairie football knows what it's like to be on the other side of a close final score.
Twice this year the Class 4A top-ranked Cougars have perservered in games coming down to the last minute, once on the road at Mishawaka, and again in a program-defining win at home against Penn just two weeks later.
New Prairie stunningly silenced a Cavemen crowd with a punishing stop on a last-second two-point conversion. It elated in pure bliss with its home fanbase after beating the Kingsmen on a last-minute Adam Borror rushing touchdown. Two separate feelings, but one common result: A Cougars victory.
Friday night was different, though.
As senior Wyatt Kmiecik, who had two receiving touchdowns on the night, weaved and bobbed his way around trying to find a hole on the game's final play, a scene that New Prairie witnessed themselves just two weeks prior again appeared before their eyes.
Confetti was thrown up into the air by the student section. Helmets were tossed off players' heads in celebration. Positive expletives flew around the air. Fans jumped up and down, embracing one another in disbelief. One team thriving in what can only be described as true, pure exaltation, while the other hangs its heads in complete, utter agony.
This time, it was the Cougars' turn to experience the latter in a heartbreaking, 31-28 loss to Elkhart Central, a late 36-yard field goal dashing New Prairie's chance of an undefeated regular season and its first outright Northern Indiana Conference North title.
"Things just didn't click tonight," Radtke said. "Guys couldn't put it into the end zone (when we needed to). They didn't have the determination. I mean, we're still the conference champions, though. We were able to run the ball well and make big plays, just couldn't do it in the (clutch) situations."
Radtke's offense was able to move the ball offensively for most of the night. The always-potent run game was just as advertised, and a passing game that had been lacking consistency for most of the year put everything together. Seeing the offense be as effective as it was against a talented 5A Blazers team bodes well for upcoming postseason play. But this loss won't be an easy one to swallow, regardless of how well New Prairie moved the ball.
Getting over a defeat such as Friday night's is no easy task. It won't degrade a Cougars team that was ranked atop the state, but it surely won't sit well with them.
"Now they know what it's like to lose a game," said associate head coach Bill Gumm. "Obviously you never want to lose. But I'll tell you this: This is going to light a fire underneath them. They know how it feels to lose, and I can guarantee you they'll do everything they can to make sure they don't feel like this again."
Experiencing the adversity that New Prairie (8-1, 4-1) did against the Blazers (7-2, 3-2) could very well be spun positively.
It's like dog training. If the dog barks, spray something sour in its mouth. It's going to despise the taste and learn what to do to make sure it never tastes that again.
It starts anew next Friday against South Bend Riley in the first round of the sectional.
Penn topped Mishawaka 21-13 to gain a share of the NIC North by virtue of New Prairie's loss.
Elkhart Central 31, New Prairie 28
Chase Ketterer threw two touchdown passes to Wyatt Kmiecik.