Concord football coach Craig Koehler knows the environment at Rice Field on Friday night will be special.
Koehler's Minutemen will be making the short trip through Elkhart to face Elkhart Central in a battle of top 10 teams in Class 5A in the sectional semifinals. Game time at Rice Field will be 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to play the winner of the Mishawaka-Elkhart Memorial game next Friday for the sectional championship.
Concord was ranked No. 6 in the final AP rankings, while Central was No. 9.
"It's just going to be an awesome environment for kids to play in,'' Koehler said. "Our people will make the short drive over there and I'm assuming their fans will show up to support their kids too. There is a lot of buzz about this game with two really good teams and the proximity of the schools. It should be good one.''
These are two outstanding football teams, with Concord coming in with an 8-1 record and a share of the Northern Lakes Conference title, while Elkhart Central is 8-2, which includes a victory over then No. 1 (4A) New Prairie in the final regular season game.
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the game is the health of Central halfback Mark Brownlee, who missed the Blue Blazers' sectional opener against South Bend Adams with a hamstring injury. Brownlee will likely be a game-time decision.
Brownlee has rushed for 1,578 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, despite missing two games.
"When you turn the film on, the first thing that really pops out at you with Central is Brownlee ... he is really good,'' Koehler said. "But almost as impressive is their offensive and defensive fronts. I mean, there are times they just take over football games. You can tell Central's offensive line has played together a lot (all five starters returned from 2018) because their execution level is so high.
"I don't think Josh (Central coach Shattuck) runs a lot of schemes, but he does such a great job of calling plays and adding window dressing (motion and shifts) that he keeps it simple for the guys up front and that's a really good thing.''
Central quarterback Isaiah Chandler has thrown for 1,283 yards and seven touchdowns this season, while Dominic Davis has rushed for 636 yards this season and also caught 29 passes for 313 yards.
The Blue Blazer defense has posted four shutouts this season, including last week's 35-0 victory over Adams. And while the entire defense is stout, Koehler believes it all starts with the defensive line.
Top Division I recruit Rodney McGraw is the biggest name on the line and the 6-foot-6, 235 pound McGraw has played like it, recording 59 total tackles, including 7.5 sacks. But defensive tackle Sean Holman leads the team with 79 tackles, while Central Michigan recruit Jonathan Decker has 58 tackles and three sacks.
"Central's linebackers and defensive backs are very solid, but that line ... '' Koehler said. "They move Rodney around some and you always have to know where he is. But Decker is really good and I think Holman is very underrated and so is 46 (Jake Smith).
And while Concord doesn't have three Division I recruits, the Minutemen lineup is definitely stout, starting with senior quarterback Ethan Cain and halfback-defensive back Carter Neveraski.
Cain has completed 154 of his 246 passes this season for 1,735 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also rushing for 264 yards. Although Neverarski's rushing totals are down from last year (421), he leads the team with 53 receptions, as Koehler uses the short pass play to Neveraski as opposed to running straight out of the backfield.
The Minutemen also feature two top receivers in sophomore Amarion Moore and Jack D'Arcy, along with dual threats Roemello Moon and Jamyris Rice.
"Our MO is set now ... we know who we are,'' Koehler said. "We'll have to complete some passes at a high percentage in order to have balance. We can't just line up and expect to have success running the football. That really hasn't been us all year.''
Concord's defense has been very good in forcing turnovers this season, as the Minutemen have a plus 15 turnover margin (23 forced, 8 given up).
The Minutemen beat Central 17-14 for the sectional title last season, while the Blazers topped Concord 23-14 in the sectional title game in 2014.
"That’s a really good football team and a really good program,'' Shattuck said of Concord after last week's win over Adams. "As I’ve said before, we’re kind of chasing ghosts, chasing monsters with some of these schools we play, in terms of it’s not just this year’s Concord team, but the program. Those kids expect to win. They win a lot of close games.''
• MEMORIAL-MISHAWAKA: While their crosstown rivals are hosting Concord, Elkhart Memorial will be traveling to Mishawaka in a game that will determine who plays the Central-Concord winner.
The Crimson Chargers are coming off victories over Wawasee and Northridge in their final two games, while Mishawaka lost in Week 9 to arch-rival Penn.
Coach Scot Shaw's Memorial squad could cause problems for Mishawaka with it's team speed, both offensively and with the special teams.
Tyren Mason and Lashawn Whitener have each returned kickoffs for touchdowns this season, as the Chargers average 33 yards-per-return this season.
Mason, Damien Funnell, Junior Estrada and tight end Zack Rohm give quarterback Tyler Lehner a variety of passing targets, while speedy junior Derrick Woods Jr. is one of the more underrated running backs in the area.
Mishawaka's ground-and-pound offense is led by sophomore quarterback Zach Fisher, with senior back Donovan Snyder and junior Drew Mason leading the way on the ground.
The key may be, can the Memorial defense stop the Cavemen's offense enough to give the offense a shot at scoring enough points to win?
• TIME CHANGES: Three sectional semifinal games on Friday will begin at 7:30 p.m., as opposed to 7.
The Jimtown-Tippecanoe Valley game and Fort Wayne Northrop at Goshen games will both begin later because of the travel time between schools. Meanwhile, Portage comes to Penn from the Central time zone, which moves the game to 7:30.
The other four games involving area teams will begin at 7 p.m.
• FINAL MATCHUPS: So, where will your favorite team be playing if they advance to the sectional title game?
In addition to depending on who wins Friday, it also matters what side of the bracket you're on.
In Class 6A, if favored Penn wins, they'll travel to either Warsaw or Chesterton. Likewise, a victory by Goshen at Foreman Field on Friday will have the RedHawks on the road against either defending state champ Fort Wayne Dwenger or Fort Wayne North in 5A.
Two other schools face the same fate if they win Friday. Jimtown will travel to either Marian or West Noble in 3A, while Fairfield would go to Fort Wayne Luers or Eastside in 2A. But a victory by NorthWood over Leo on Friday will have the Panthers hosting either East Noble or DeKalb.
Only the local 5A sectional has an either-or to it.
The winner of the Concord-Elkhart Central game will host Mishawaka, but travel to Elkhart Memorial for the sectional championship game.
Portage at Penn, 7:30
Concord at Elkhart Central, 7
Elkhart Memorial at Mishawaka, 7
FW Northrop at Goshen, 7:30
NorthWood at Leo, 7
Jimtown at Tippecanoe Valley, 7:30
Prairie Heights at Fairfield, 7