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Opportunistic Guerin Catholic (Ind.) defense sets up short drives in 31-14 road trip win over Pontiac (Mich.) ND Prep

By: Matthew B. Mowery, September 29, 2018, 9:20 pm

PONTIAC — When you’ve already driven five hours, the last thing you want to have to do is drive more.

Luckily for the Guerin Catholic High School Golden Eagles, as soon as they got off the bus at the end of their interminable, 287-mile trip from Noblesville, Ind., to Pontiac, Mich., Saturday afternoon their opportunistic defense made sure they didn’t have to drive that much further.

The defense picked off three first-half passes, and turned those interceptions into short fields and 17 points, as the Golden Eagles posted a 24-0 halftime lead, en route to a 31-14 lead over host Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.

“It’s awesome. Our defense does a great job — coach Shack (Steven Shackelford), our defensive coordinator, and the rest of the coaching staff puts us in great position, and we executed the game plan in the first half. We were all focused on the bus ride coming up, looking at the play sheet, and we came out and it showed,” said Guerin’s all-state running back/defensive back Dylan Crossen, admitting the cram session on the bus might’ve been the lone upside to the drive, which started at 8 a.m.

“It certainly has its pros.”

When your players are cooped up that long, the first concern for a coach is probably how the team executes when it finally gets out.

“When you get off a five-hour bus ride, yeah. It’s not the biggest (concern), but it’s up there,” said Guerin Catholic coach Tom Dilley, who’s been on the Golden Eagles bench for four seasons, after previous stops at Bishop Chatard and Lawrence North. “It’s just one more thing, and I think our kids pride themselves on trying to bring their best effort, regardless of circumstances. And this is another circumstance, and they got experience in trying to deal with it, against a good team, and maybe it’ll serve us well in the future, if we have to travel, for the playoffs at some point.”

Ranked No. 6 in the Indiana High School Sports Association’s 3A division, Golden Eagles (5-2) were also coming off a 21-13 loss to top-ranked Bishop Chatard. So it wasn’t like they were a team that flew in under the radar.

“We had all the film we needed. It’s hard to gauge competition on film, though, when you don’t know the teams they’re playing. We knew they were extremely well fundamentally coached. They were a little bigger and a little more physical than it looked like on film. We knew they were going to be pretty good, but to the eyeball test, they looked thick, and they played very well. And they’re very well-coached,” said Notre Dame Prep coach Pat Fox, whose Irish (4-2) will likely be in Division 4 in the MHSAA playoffs.

“We made mistakes early. We dug ourselves a big hole. Our kids play courageously, they fought hard and came back in the second half, and we played a little bit more like we normally play. But it was too late. We’d spotted them too much. But our kids did a good job. …

“They’re a good team. We’re going to be fine coming down the stretch, but that was a great football team we played today.”

Guerin capitalized on those Notre Dame Prep mistakes.

If you count the five drives where the Golden Eagles actually ran offensive plays, their average starting position was the ND Prep 43 yard line, with two starting inside the 30.

• After posting themselves to a 7-0 lead, the Golden Eagles turned an interception at the NDP 20 from linebacker Charles Bock into an 8-yard score by Crossen and a 14-0 margin.

• With just over four minutes left before halftime, defensive back Billy Freudenthal stepped in front of a pass and returned it 22 yards for a score, and a 21-0 margin.

• The very next pass play, the ball was deflected and pinballed around between defenders before defensive lineman Jeremy Shewmaker made the catch and was tackled on the NDP 15. Four plays later, that turned into a 32-yard field goal by Nathan Friedman, and a 24-0 lead.

Even the first TD of the day was somewhat opportunistic, as tight end Hank Bates caught a pass in the right flat, and raced 34 yards toward the goalline before fumbling it just outside the end zone when he tried to stretch the ball out. Teammate Bernie McGuiness recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.

“Another teachable moment, about not extending the ball, unless it’s a game-winning situation, because it’s simply not worth it,” Dilley said. “He’s smarter than you and I put together, and he knows that. He’s just out competing. Good chance to learn something. That’s why we came up.”

The Golden Eagles would run into another teachable moment when the Irish came out of the halftime locker room fired up, and cut that big halftime lead down to 10.

Connor Gaeschke scored on a 1-yard plunge to cap a 13-play drive for the Irish on the first possession of the second half, then Michael Winiarski recovered a fumble on Guerin Catholic’s very first snap of the ensuing drive, setting up another Gaeschke touchdown three plays later — this from 5 yards out — making it a 24-14 game.

“I was excited: Our kids played fast, they played the way they were supposed to,” Fox said. “And we needed to play that way early. They came out ready to play, and we didn’t handle it well. I need to do a better job of preparing my kids to be ready to go at the jump.”

Momentum had swung, and might’ve kept swinging, had the Golden Eagles not answered.

“Oh, sure. You can feel it,” Dilley said. “But again, you really feel that what you need to do with your kids at that point is you need to teach them, ‘This is controllable. You can control your attitude. You can respond to this however you choose.’ And I thought they responded pretty well.”

Crossen, who finished with 113 yards on the afternoon, ripped off 49 on the Golden Eagles’ next offensive snap, and four plays later, Guerin Catholic was back in the end zone on an 11-yard run by Jagger Albert to reinstate a three-score margin, at 31-14.

“No, just a little bit of adversity, but we knew if we stayed together, we could turn it around, and that’s what we did,” Crossen said.

It was deflating for Notre Dame Prep’s chances of a comeback.

“It was. We needed to get a stop and we couldn’t get off the field there,” Fox said.

So was the ensuing Notre Dame Prep drive which had another pick-six by Freudenthal negated by a defensive holding penalty, but still ground to a halt with back-to-back sacks by Bates.

Limited to just seven plays in the third quarter, Guerin Catholic ran the first two-and-a-half minutes of the fourth off the clock before giving the ball back, then after a three-and-out, ground the final 7:45 off the clock to end the game.