ELKHART — One of the greatest and most suspenseful victories in the rich history of Elkhart Central football — achieved in the school’s last-ever regular-season game at Rice Field — came down to a player in his first year of football.
Bryan Ramirez boomed a 36-yard field goal with five seconds to play that looked like it would’ve been good from 56 as the Blue Blazers knocked off Class 4A No. 1-ranked New Prairie 31-28 in front of a chilled but thrilled home crowd Friday night.
“I was thinking to myself, I gotta make it,” said Ramirez, a senior and soccer star who added football duties this fall. “My teammates made it too far for me to let ’em down. I couldn’t, plus I knew if we won, we beat the No. 1 team in the state. It’s just amazing.”
It was that.
In a roller-coaster game that featured four ties, Central also twice erased deficits, the second one coming in the fourth quarter, to deny the Cougars (8-1, 4-1) an outright Northern Indiana Conference North Division title.
Instead, New Prairie settles for a share of the crown with Penn.
The Blazers improved to 7-2 and 3-2 with a monumental win against the same program that dusted them 49-0 one year ago.
“That (turnabout) tells you something about the work our kids have put in,” Central coach Josh Shattuck said.
“You can play really well and still not beat teams like New Prairie, Penn, Mishawaka,” Shattuck said. “If you play well, it only means you have a chance. We’ve been chasing giants here, programs with great cultures who do it year in and year out. You just gotta find a way if you’re going to take that next step, and tonight we found a way.”
That way included a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions against a club that almost never turns the ball over. The Cougars had coughed it up just three times all fall, and just once by air.
With the game deadlocked at 28-28, senior defensive back Terrence Williams picked off Chase Ketterer’s fourth-and-4 pass into the end zone from the Blazer 23 at 4:25 to go — that outcome possibly keyed in part by defensive end Jonathan Decker, with arms stretched high, leaping toward Ketterer as the ball was released.
Then with just 27 seconds remaining – shortly after Ramirez had pinned the Cougars deep with a 47-yard punt – junior DB Michael Echartea intercepted Ketterer’s second-and-2 bomb from the New Prairie 20, right along the visitors’ sideline.
“Their coach was yelling, ‘Block him, block him,’ trying to trick me (into believing it was a run play),” Echartea said, “but I just ran deep with their dude because that’s what we’re called to do in cover-three. He threw it and Kennath (Dennis) ran in front of me, basically got the receiver out of the way, and I just caught it.”
That gave Central the ball at the New Prairie 49 with just those 27 seconds and one timeout remaining.
On third-and-3 from the Cougar 42 with 15 seconds left and the timeout gone, Mark Brownlee powered up the middle for 23 yards, but his left leg cramped up and he went down.
“Conventional wisdom says you gotta throw the ball to gain that kind of yardage,” Shattuck said, “but they were really playing for the pass. I thought even if it was a 4-yard gain, we could still spike it and run another player or two.”
Instead, the clock was momentarily stopped by the first down, then by quarterback Isaiah Chandler getting his team set in time to clock the ball with nine ticks showing.
That set the stage for Ramirez’s winner, and ultimately for a couple kisses on the cheek from teammates while Ramirez was doing a postgame interview.
“No, I don’t mind,” Ramirez said with a blushing smile.
The senior, also 4-of-4 on extra points, acknowledged that a second-quarter punt he shanked, leading to a New Prairie touchdown, “kept going through my head” during the game.
“I had to step it up, do something to make up for it,” Ramirez said. “I have to say our holder (Cam Wiltfong) was excellent. He held down a couple (snaps) that looked off.”
On a night Brownlee rushed for 131 yards on 22 carries and also had a 36-yard receiving TD, he tallied from 3 yards out with 10:53 to go as the Blazers squared the game at 28-28.
Central’s rocking defense, meanwhile, kept New Prairie from the major rushing gains that are a Cougar staple.
New Prairie went into the evening averaging 374 ground yards per game and 8.2 yards per attempt, but was limited to 192 yards and 3.9 per play.
“They’re used to getting three or four run-outs, really long plays (on the ground) and I don’t think we gave up any,” Shattuck said on a night that the Cougars’ longest running gain was 12 yards.
New Prairie passed 11 times and scrambled out of several other tries. The Cougars were averaging six attempts per game going in.
“When they’re throwing as much as they did, and trying trick plays, that meant that they were growing impatient, that they were out of their comfort zone,” Shattuck said, “and that’s a credit to our kids on defense.”
Central played virtually clean football, committing no turnovers and just one penalty.
The Blazers’ closest outcome in any of their 12 previous victories over the last two years had been 19 points.
Their most lopsided loss other than last year’s New Prairie game had been seven points, and blended in were defeats against top opponents by three, two, three, three, five and two points.
“I’m not sure,” Shattuck said of how his team kept regathering itself against that parade of heartbreak. “Honestly, I believe it’s a love between the coaching staff and players, and among the players themselves. We love each other. We get frustrated with each other, but it’s just like a family. You have your battles, but we’ve had an ability to withstand things.”
ELKHART CENTRAL 31, NEW PRAIRIE 28
Scoring By Quarters
NP — Wyatt Kmiecik 8 pass from Chase Ketterer; Nolan Szymanski kick; 3:49.
EC — Dominic Davis 25 pass from Isaiah Chandler; Bryan Ramirez kick; 11:09.
EC — Mark Brownlee 36 pass from Chandler; Ramirez kick; 9:16.
NP — Chris Mays 1 run; Szymanski kick; 2:26.
NP — Kmiecik 53 pass from Ketterer; Szymanski kick; 0:52.
EC — Brownlee 3 run; Ramirez kick; 10:43.
NP — Ketterer 10 run; Szymanski kick; 6:24.
EC — Roderick Ballard 11 pass from Chandler; Ramirez kick; 10:53.
EC — Ramirez 36 field goal; 0:05.
New Prairie: Rushing — Chase Ketterer 29-120, Chris Mays 12-59. Passing — Ketterer 6-11-129 (2 int). Receiving — Wyatt Kmiecik 3-81, Ian Skornog 2-30, Taylor Adams 1-18.
Central: Rushing — Mark Brownlee 22-131, Dominic Davis 3-26, Isaiah Chandler 2-13. Passing — Chandler 11-18-123 (0 int). Receiving — Roderick Ballard 5-50, Davis 4-42, Brownlee 2-31. Interceptions — Terrence Williams, Michael Echartea.