It took the Cougars almost three full quarters to get fired up and leave Evansville Mater Dei in the deep freeze. Bitter cold, strong winds had an effect on the game, but in the end North Putnam was able to log its 14th win of the season.
Ironically, it wasn't the offense that provided the lift for the Cougars -- that lift came from No. 7 Aaron Vondersaar. With less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Vondersaar intercepted Wildcats quarterback Dane Maurer's dump pass at Mater Dei's 25-yard line.
"Unbelievable," Cougar head coach Greg Barrett said. "Defense wins championships and those guys played fabulous tonight. You know what, that's been the staple of our team all year long. Those guys play well together and they understand and communicate and do all the right things. This is a great victory for not only them, but the program and the community."
On the next play, it was another Vondersaar who gave North Putnam the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Feeding off the rise in emotion from the big defensive play, quarterback Kolten Everts handed off to Travis Franklin who turned the corner and instead of running the ball fired it to Caleb Vondersaar who caught it at the five-yard line and trotted in to the end zone untouched for the score with 2:40 on the clock. The point after from Cody Summerlot got caught up in the wind and fell short of the goal post.
Barrett said he was waiting for the right time to pull the play from the playbook, and when the Cougars found themselves on the 25-yard line, he said there was no better time to unleash it.
"I wanted to get a little closer," he said. "They were biting so hard on our jet sweep. We knew it was coming, I just didn't know when. I thought that was the right time. Caleb sold it really good, but it didn't matter how he sold it because the kid was coming up so fast. Travis put it out there -- we work on it all the time.
"We have a lot of things that we do on our jet counter-wise and we really didn't get to them because I didn't feel like we were getting up to that next level like we should have. We just pounded what got us here and that was the outside game and I thought they did a great job with that," Barrett added.
With a six-point lead and a newfound fire in its belly, North Putnam's defense came up strong. Travis Kratt stopped Cody Hess for a short gain and then Hank Spencer sniffed out a reverse and took down Hunter Owen behind the line for a loss of nine yards.
In the fourth quarter, North Putnam played strong, but Evansville Mater Dei found a way to move the ball and that came primarily through the air. Maurer hit Dalton Brandenstein and Isaac Tekoppel for a pair of 13-yard gains, but North Putnam still made its presence felt.
Aaron Vondersaar had another tipped ball at the line and Tyler Watson had some big hits up front for the Cougars.
The Wildcats' drive faced a fourth and 11 to keep it going, but a fierce defense knockdown by Franklin stalled the drive and gave North Putnam another chance to run more time off the clock.
The Cougars had issues moving the ball on the ensuing drive and had to punt the ball away, almost certainly giving the Wildcats good field position. However, Everts punted the ball that landed on its side and ran to Mater Dei's 9-yard line to pin the Wildcats deep.
It would be up to the Cougar defense to do what it has done all year -- stop a team in its tracks and that's precisely what they did.
Following a 10-yard pass on the first play, Spencer knocked the ball loose from a receiver on the sideline and Mater Dei was never able to get things going again. Two plays later, they faced a fourth-and-seven with 1:27 remaining and Maurer's pass found only the turf, igniting the Cougars' sideline and stands as the dream of reaching the state finals became a reality.
Three kneels from Everts and the game was done. North Putnam had won 6-0 and punched its ticket to the state finals for the first time in school history.
The game didn't go as smoothly as the Cougars would have like as they lost two fumbles, but Barrett said he was proud with how his team responded.
"They bounced back and didn't put their heads down and kept fighting -- play one play at a time and that's what we tell them," he said.
When speaking of Vondersaar's key interception, the Cougar head coach said it was a prime example of practice bleeding over into games.
"You know what's great about that? Aaron has picked that off three times this week in practice. He's just been -- you play like you practice, you know, in a game," Barrett said.
North Putnam has had a singular focus from the moment of its dismissal from the tournament last year and after their big win Friday it didn't waiver an inch.
"The great thing about these guys, on the back of our Thursday gear we have a 1-5 on the back of our shirts. We talk about playing 15 all year and these guys have taken every game play-by-play, game-by-game and here we are playing for 15. We're not just wanting to play 15, we're wanting to win 15," Barrett said.
Franklin led the Cougars with 86 rushing yards, with Spencer adding 36. Franklin also caught two passes for 35 yards. Spencer led the North Putnam defense with 13 tackles, with Kratt and Jake Worth adding 10 tackles. Worth also had a sack on the night.
The Cougars held Mater Dei's leading rusher Hess to only 55 yards on the ground.
North Putnam will play the winner of Rensselaer Central and Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, who play tonight at 7 p.m., at Lucas Oil Stadium for the state championship next Friday at 7 p.m.
At North Putnam
Evansville MD. 0 0 0 0 -- 0
North Putnam 0 0 6 0 -- 6
NP -- C. Vondersaar 25-yard pass from Franklin, kick failed 2:40
First Downs -- North Putnam (8), Evansville Mater Dei (10)
Punts-Yards -- North Putnam (6-203), Evansville Mater Dei (7-257)
Fumbles-Lost -- North Putnam (3-2), Evansville Mater Dei (0-0)
Penalties-Yards -- North Putnam (3-21), Evansville Mater Dei (2-20)
North Putnam (14-0, 5-0 WCC):
Rushing -- (39 carries, 221 yards) -- Everts 11-32, Franklin 13-86, Spencer 6-36, Shorter 3-27, C. Vondersaar 1-7, Murphy 2-4, Kratt 3-29.
Passing -- (4-8-1-0, 58 yards) -- Everts 3-7, 33 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT, Franklin 1-1, 25 yds, 1 TD, 0 INT.
Receiving -- (4 catches, 58 yards) -- Franklin 2-35, Spencer 1-(-2), C. Vondersaar 1-25.
Total Offense -- (47 plays, 279 yards)
Evansville Mater Dei (12-2, 6-1 SIAC):
Rushing -- (34 carries, 108 yards) -- Maurer 13-29, Hess 20-55, Owen 1-24.
Passing -- (7-19-0-1, 79 yards) -- Maurer 7-19, 79 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT.
Receiving --(7 catches, 79 yards) -- Owen 1-27, Takoppel 4-27, Brandenstein 2-25.
Total Offense -- (53 plays, 187 yards)
Next game -- North Putnam will play the winner of the Rensselaer Central and Fort Wayne Bishop Luers who play tonight at 7 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium for the state championship next Friday at 7 p.m.