GREENFIELD — The comfort of playoff familiarity can be a blessing and a curse, but so can the unknown.
This week during practice, the Class 5A Greenfield-Central Cougars have embraced their blinders, focused on the approach, not their opponent or the uncharted path ahead after moving up from 4A this offseason.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, the preparation is still the same, and expectations are still high,” Greenfield-Central head football coach Adam Sherman remarked on tonight’s Sectional 12 opener. “It’s 5A for the first time in school history. It’s a new challenge. This is where it really matters. It’s exciting.”
For years, the Cougars (3-6) have seen the same cast of characters in previous 4A postseasons, from Delta to Mt. Vernon, Pendleton Heights to Jay County. Often playing their sectional foes in advance with several sharing Hoosier Heritage Conference affliation, the 5A Zionsville Eagles (4-5) are a true enigma.
Story continues below gallery
In 30 years, the Cougars and Eagles have no prior meetings. No better time than tonight at 7 p.m. in Boone County for their Sectional 12 quarterfinal matchup to make a first impression.
“It’s a big task against Zionsville, but we’re definitely up to it. There’s no doubt in our mind. What needs to be done (tonight) will be done,” Cougars senior quarterback Andrew Leslie said. “I feel like we’ve learned a lot about ourselves these first nine games. We’re applying it this week and we feel we can apply it to get a win.”
A victory in the opening round of sectional would help snap the Cougars’ two-game losing streak and mark the second win for the program in the past seven games. Last year, Greenfield-Central advanced to the sectional semifinals after consecutive opening game sectional defeats.
However, the Cougars aren’t carrying around the past to determine the future.
“Whatever’s happened doesn’t matter. We have full intention of going over there and winning,” Sherman said. “It’s a great test for us because I think we’ve grown every week. We’ve taken some steps back, but it seems we’ve come together and even though we didn’t win last week, we played well.”
In two of the Cougars six losses, their opponents prevailed with a margin of seven points or less. Last week’s regular-season finale at New Castle was decided by two possessions at 10 points.
“No matter what the situation, we’re always fighting. We’ve been in about every single game minus one or two. We’re right there,” Sherman said. “A couple bounces the other way and the record is a little bit different. The kids are resilient and I love that about them.”
They are productive as well, especially recently in the passing game. Against Yorktown in Week 7, Leslie passed for a season-best 258 yards and the rushing attack has produced 100 or more yards on five occasions prior to Week 9.
Leslie has surpassed 1,600 yards passing this season with more than a dozen touchdowns thrown and senior rusher Braden Brown has accounted for 731 yards and eight scores.
“Our big thing this week is finishing. We want to give motivation back to our defense because we definitely trust them,” Leslie said.
Averaging 19.6 points per game, the Cougars admit they’ve left points on the board and have been working to clean up drive-killing penalties and other mental mistakes, which cost them in tight games this season.
The defense shares the blame, senior cornerback Ty Jones said, referring to several ill-timed calls against the Cougars, extending series for their opponents.
“We’ve learned we’re good enough to stop anyone if we actually try. We need to not take any stupid penalties and stay together as a team, a family, and play hard,” Jones said. “We just have to make plays and get our offense back on the field.”
The defense will try to neutralize Zionsville’s 21.9 points per game average with pressure and ball-hawking. The Cougars have 26.0 tackles for a loss and nine interceptions this season and will face the Eagles’ backup quarterback tonight.
Senior Andrew Broecker, who passed for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns, sustained a broken ankle in Week 8, which will keep him out the rest of the season. Junior Josh Wagner has stepped in and threw for 189 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions as Zionsville lost to 6A Fishers 23-10 last week.
“It always changes things when any impact player is out, but they’re good. They have some really good players that are really good for a reason. They have a great coach and staff. It’s going to be fun,” Sherman said.
The Eagles have three rushers with 270 yards or more, led by senior Nick Brier with 552 yards and one score. Tommy Fossett, a junior, has four touchdowns.
The key, Sherman emphasized, will be minimizing the big plays and putting a few together with every week a win or go home scenario.
“We want to put our offense in good positions. Our defense is gruesome. We play hard. We play fast, but we can play a little too fast,” Jones said. “Overall, we’re aggressive, and we can make stops. We definitely have the playmakers. We just have to hope every player shows up.”