MISHAWAKA — In the heat of August, the football teams from Penn and Crown Point got together for a scrimmage to work out the kinks and get ready for the 2016 season.
Three months later, the Kingsmen and Bulldogs will play Friday with the stakes much higher.
Penn (11-0) hosts Crown Point (6-5) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a Class 6A regional game with a berth in the Final Four at stake.
"It will be great to see how much the teams have improved since August,'' Penn coach Cory Yeoman said. "When you get to this point of the season and there are only eight teams left in 6A, you know you're going to be facing a quality opponent, and that will be the case on Friday.''
The Bulldog team Penn will see is playing its best football of the season, beating Duneland Conference rivals Lake Central and Merrillville to win a sectional title for the first time since 2011. The Kingsmen beat Crown Point that season 20-3 in the only previous game between the two schools.
Crown Point has won four straight after a 2-5 start, thanks in part to an improved offense to go along with the third-best defense still remaining in 6A.
Junior quarterback Ryan Bolda has taken the controls for the Bulldogs in the tournament and has been very good. In a tough sectional-title win over Merrillville last week, Bolda completed 11-of-25 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns.
Bolda's top receiver last week was 6-foot-6 Shane McCormick, who caught nine passes for 242 yards and touchdowns of 65 and 71 yards against Merrillville. He also blocked a kick and defected a pass defensively.
"McCormick is one of those athletes that is almost unfair,'' Yeoman said. "He's big and very fast and he's also tough to bring down. Not only is he a very good receiver, but they give him the ball quite a bit on the jet sweep, so we'll have to be aware of that, too.
"They also have the biggest offensive line we've seen this season. which is one of the reasons they can also run the ball. They probably average about 270, with a couple kids right around 300 pounds. But that doesn't mean we're going to do anything different defensively. We'll just go at them the way we have all the other teams this year. We've been smaller than many of the teams we've faced so far.''
But that Penn defense has been outstanding, allowing just 9.5 points per game, by far the lowest of the remaining 6A teams.
One of the key components to the defense has been safety Paul Moala, who had a pair of interceptions in Penn's win over LaPorte last week. Cornerback Autry Denson Jr. and defensive ends Nathanael Boone and James Morris have also been a huge part of the rugged Kingsmen defense.
While the Penn special teams – especially explosive senior Matt Kominkiewicz – have been a huge part of the team's success, like Crown Point, Penn's offense has stepped up in the tournament.
Senior quarterback James Iapalucci has become more polished as the season has progressed, with Kominkiewicz and sophomore Noah Applegate emerging as top receivers, with tight end Anthony Torres also becoming a key target. Landon Martz and Rashid Maclin share the load at running back.
Friday's winner will face the winner of the Carmel (8-4) at Homestead (9-2) game for a shot at advancing to the state title game. Penn would travel to Carmel, but host Homestead in semistate action.