Friday night marked the end of an era at South Putnam High School.
After 22 years as head coach of the South Putnam varsity football team, Mark Wildman announced his retirement.
"That was it," Wildman said. "I've known for a couple months. What a great, great game to go out on."
From start to finish, South Putnam battled the Tri-West Bruins for the Indiana High School Athletic Association Sectional 29 Championship. The Eagles came out fired up, taking a 21-14 lead into halftime. However, the Bruins proved the stronger team in the end, scoring 28 points in the second half to win the game, 42-21.
"They've been wanting this game since the second week of the season," Wildman said. "Since that 0-2 start, we've been 7-3. They just wanted to play better football and get another chance."
South Putnam lost to Tri-West 53-14 in first matchup this season, giving up a total of 444 yards on offense, including 369 yards rushing. From the first quarter of Friday's game, the Eagles established a different defensive mentality.
"They ran the ball on us the first time they played us up and down the field," Wildman said. "They really had trouble."
South Putnam held the Bruins to just 159 yards rushing on 27 carries Friday. In particular, the first half showcased a hard-nosed defensive line holding Tri-West to just 61 yards rushing. The Bruins only big offensive play came on a 69-yard Chris Rutherford touchdown run.
"He is something," Wildman said of Rutherford. "He caught that one long pass. But he's one of those players that if he's not catching passes, he'll return a punt on you or run a reverse."
The Eagles started the game looking like a team on a mission. Tri-West went three-and-out on its first possession, and South Putnam responded by scoring on its first drive. Running back Drew Christy was looking flashy, first breaking a 34-yard run to take the Eagles to the Bruins' 28-yard line, and then busting a 22-yard run up the gut to make the score 7-0.
The Bruins responded with two consecutive scores, but the Eagles fought back. Christy punched a one-yard run in the end zone with just under two minutes remaining, and Ben Anderson returned a punt 65 yards to make the score 21-14 with just under a minute remaining in the half.
"We just kept making plays," Wildman said. "We can't complain about going up 21-14. Play after play, down after down, our defense really, really played well."
Christy had 95 yards rushing in the first half, scoring two touchdowns, while quarterback Anthony Tomasino was 5-of-9 for 42 yards passing. The offense was clicking, and the South Putnam stands were rocking. It appeared that the Eagles were on the verge of upsetting the defending 2A state champions.
However, the second half brought on a whole new story.
Tri-West scored on its first possession of the second half, making the score 21-21. The following kickoff was recovered by Tri-West's DeMarco Moses, and the Bruins capitalized on a 17-yard Matt Berry touchdown run with 4:51 left in the third quarter. The score gave Tri-West a 28-21 lead, from which it never looked back.
"The second half was all field position," Wildman said. "We just couldn't get the ball down on our end of the field."
The Bruins finished the game with 285 yards on offense, while the Eagles gained 197 total yards. Tri-West had 159 yards rushing and 126 yards passing, while South Putnam had 116 yards rushing and 81 yards passing. Christy finished with 107 yards rushing on 17 carries, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, going out on a good note in his final game in a South Putnam jersey.
Along with Christy, a total of 19 seniors played their final game on the South Putnam football field. Tomasino, tight end Matt Hicks, Zach Rhine and Joe Gardner -- all captains -- are just a few who won't be returning next season.
"It's a bunch that you know all along that you want to coach them -- you're going to have fun coaching them," Wildman said. "(They had) great practices, good attitudes in practice, great leaders. There's a reason you want to stay around for guys like this."
Wildman ends his coaching career with 140 career wins at South Putnam. While some from the South Putnam stands cleared after the game, many stuck around to show their appreciation for the coach and the departing senior players. An emotional group of seniors, along with their beloved coach, embraced each other after the game -- enjoying one last moment on the field
"I knew I'd coach through this year," Wildman said. "I've known that since the 2002 season. I wanted to stay through with these guys that were freshmen that season."
The Eagles finish the season with a record of 7-5 on the season, after starting the year 0-2. It was hard-fought and often emotional, but never a failure.
As the road continues for the South Putnam varsity football team, they will have to do without their leader of 21 years. The Eagles came short of one last big victory for their coach. However, in reflection, Wildman knows the season, his career, even the game were nothing short of successful.
"I've enjoyed it," Wildman said. "That's one thing about stopping now. I don't want to be one of those people they kick out the door. I'd like to stop on a good season."
At South Putnam
South Putnam 7 14 0 0 -- 21
Tri-West 7 7 21 7 -- 42
South Putnam -- Christy 22 run (Hicks kick) 8:25.
Tri-West -- Rutherford 42 pass from Bruce (Roberston kick) 2:37.
Tri-West -- Rutherford 69 run (Roberston kick) 7:42.
South Putnam -- Christy 1 run (Hicks kick) 1:57.
South Putnam -- Anderson 65 punt return (Hicks kick) 59.4
Tri-West -- Bruce 1 run (Roberston kick) 5:32.
Tri-West -- Berry 17 run (Roberston kick) 4:51.
Tri-West -- Roberston 16 run (Roberston kick) 57.9.
Tri-West -- Rutherford 11 pass from Bruce (Roberston kick) 6:58.
First downs: South Putnam 10, Tri-West 7.
Penalties-yards: South Putnam 3-22, Tri-West 2-20.
Fumbles-lost: South Putnam 3-2, Tri-West 0-0.
Total rushing: South Putnam 30-116, Tri-West 27-159.
Total passing: South Putnam 81, Tri-West 126.
Total offense: South Putnam 197, Tri-West 285.
South Putnam: Tomasino 10-17, 81 yds 0 TD 0 INT.
Tri-West: Bruce 7-16 126 2 TD 0 INT.
South Putnam: Christy 17-107, Birkemeier 7-11, McCallie 3-4, Hicks 3 (-6).
Tri-West: Rutherford 1-69, Alexander 5-28, Graves 9-20, Bruce 9-18, Berry 1-17, Pugliese 2-7.
South Putnam -- Christy 2-25, McKinney 3-23, Hicks 2-17, Huck 2-16, Rhine 1-5.
Tri-West -- Rutherford 5-112, Thompson 1-9, Berry 1-5.