"First off, hats off to Cardinal Ritter," North Putnam head coach Brian Crabtree said. "They're outstanding. Their kids play with class and great effort and their coaching staff is top notch. What an honor it was to be on the field of battle with them tonight."
The contest looked more like a prize match between two heavyweight boxers, but it was North Putnam who would deal the knockout blow.
The Raiders led the game 31-27 after three quarters of play, but North Putnam was knocking on the door of the endzone as the quarter expired. The Cougars took the lead just three seconds into the final quarter when quarterback Kolten Everts called his own number and pushed his way in from a yard out to put North Putnam into the lead 33-31 after a point after attempt.
Following a quick three and out by Cardinal Ritter, the Raiders' Jordan Brown picked off Everts and returned the ball to the North Putnam 15-yard line. The Cougars' defense was able to make a stand and held the Raiders to a field goal, giving Indianapolis Ritter the lead 34-33.
North Putnam began a march toward the endzone, moving the ball in nice chunks of yardage, but Hank Spencer was stopped short of the endzone on a fourth and goal try with 2:09 remaining and it looked as though the Cougars' hopes of making a return trip to Lucas Oil Stadium were fading fast.
North Putnam's defense was able to force the Raiders to punt the ball with less than a minute remaining in the game. On the first play of their final drive, Everts looked to Jameson Brewer at the goal line on a 45-yard pass, but Brewer was covered well and the ball hit the dirt.
Everts' next pass found dirt again, only this time it was paydirt.
On the next play, Everts connected with Jake Smerage for a 45-yard touchdown with less than 20 second left to put the Cougars in front for good. The duo hooked up for the two-point conversion making it 41-34 in favor of the Cougars.
The Raiders' last shot to the endzone with :02 remaining was batted around, with Spencer snagging the ball to preserve the win.
Crabtree was impressed with his team's ability to not give up and believe there were still able to win the contest.
"It's a special group of young men we have here," he said. "There were a lot of times throughout the course of the game where it would have been easy to fold things up and stop fighting and stop believing -- they have too much character for that. They kept scratching and kept clawing and traded punches back and forth for a while. Even when it looked like it was pretty grim, they kept believing, we kept it together and we made some plays when we had to. This is a special win."
The night didn't start well for the Cougars as Cardinal Ritter jumped out to 10-0 advantage.
Everts and Smerage hooked up for the Cougars' first touchdown on a 40-yard strike with 5:42 in the first.
Everts also rushed the ball in from 12 yards out just before the half to pull North Putnam within three at 17-14 at the break.
Smerage added two rushing touchdowns in the third quarter for North Putnam, including a 73-yard scamper that put the Cougars back out front 27-24 following a Cardinal Ritter score.
Smerage rushed for 149 yards and caught five balls for 116 yards, but as Crabtree pointed out, it was an entire team effort that lifted North Putnam to the win.
"Jake's a heck of a ball player, but I tell you what, we have a team full of them," he said. "Just great young men and excellent football players. This is a program win. This is for all the guys in the youth league. They help develop these guys as their coming up through. Ron Price and his middle school program really started a lot of the core values that these seniors carry with them.
"And coach (Greg) Barrett and coach (Dave) Pasch before him -- it's a culmination of a lot of that, but I'll tell you what. Here's the other thing, tonight is awesome, but weren't not even close to where we want to be in terms of what we want to accomplish. We're going to enjoy it tonight, but we're going to be ready to go back to work tomorrow," Crabtree added.
North Putnam will face a familiar foe for the sectional title as they will hook up with county rival South Putnam next Friday at 7 p.m. The first contest went to the Cougars, but Crabtree noted that was different game and different circumstances. He fully expects the Eagles to be focused and ready to go.
"That's awesome," he said of the all-county final. "Troy's got a great program down at South Putnam. Regardless of what the score was the first time, he's got a great football team and it's going to be one heck of a ball game. They're going to come in battling and we better have a great week of preparation."
At North Putnam
Class 2A No. 30 Sectional
Cardinal Ritter 7 10 14 3 -- 34
North Putnam 0 14 13 14 -- 41
ICR -- Purichia 7 yard pass to Cmehil, kick good
ICR -- 23 yard field goal
NP -- Everts 40 yard pass to Smerage, kick good
ICR -- Purichia 17 yard pass to Birk, kick good
NP -- Everts 12 yard run, kick good
NP -- Smerage 17 yard run, kick failed
ICR -- Purichia 9 yard pass to Cmehil, kick good
NP -- Smerage 73 yard run, kick good
ICR -- Purichia 25 yard pass to Parrett, kick good
NP -- Everts 1 yard run, kick wide
ICR -- Clark 24-yard FG
NP -- Everts 34 yard pass to Smerage, conversion good
North Putnam Stats
Rushing -- Smerage 9-149, Shorter 5-74, Spencer 14-69, Everts 10-56
Passing -- Everts 16-25 193 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Receiving -- Smerage 5-116, Brewer 5-30, Spencer 2-11, Stanley 3-17, Shorter 1-19