By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – The long and winding road, Bedford North Lawrence has seen that road before. It’s left a pool of tears, a long, long time ago. Will history leave the Stars standing there once again?
BNL will begin the 2023 postseason journey with a prolonged trip to a dreaded destination in another time zone. Evansville, known as the Pocket City, has always been an E-ville port of call for the Stars. None of the previous trips have ended with a win in their pockets. Will this hastily-arranged excursion conclude with a different climax?
For its debut in Class 4A’s Sectional 24, BNL will make the perilous trek to clash with Evansville Harrison in the opening round of the IHSAA state tournament on Friday night. The Stars (6-3) are hoping to make history. They’ve never won in the Evansville area in program history, and they’re seeking a victory in back-to-back postseasons for only the second time. If those troubling trends are to be broken, the test against the struggling Warriors (1-8) could be the perfect chance.
However, don’t start any premature celebrations or next-week plans. Harrison competes in the ultra-tough Southern Indiana Conference (eight Evansville schools plus Jasper and Vincennes Lincoln), so its record is misleading. And given BNL’s lack of archived success (both in the tournament and in the locale), nothing can be taken for granted.
“I don’t think you can put a lot on their record, especially this time of year,” BNL coach Derrick Barker said. “It’s the sectional, and everybody knows it’s win or go home. You’ll get everybody’s max effort, everyone will play a little bit harder. You can’t overlook them because of their record. We have to play our best game.”
When the IHSAA announced the late switch (Week 2 of the regular season) of BNL into this sectional, it forced the Stars into scramble mode for information on possible opponents. BNL has not faced Harrison since 1993, and the only win over the Warriors came in 1991. Ancient history. Familiarity will not breed contempt, like what Harrison faces in its crosstown conference foes. In this case, the unacquainted breeds excitement.
“That’s good for us,” Harrison coach Moe Sutton said. “This is not the old Harrison, ready to play anybody. So playing a new face is a great opportunity for us.”
Harrison has fallen on hard times of late. When Sutton took over the program, he could barely get enough athletes on the roster to conduct a full practice. The record showed that. The Warriors have won only 11 games the last six years, they haven’t won a sectional game since 2016. Harrison’s lone win this season was a 28-21 victory over winless Evansville Central.
“The only thing we can do is look up,” Sutton said. “We can’t look down. We’re at the bottom, but we’re building from the inside out. We’re making some improvements. Even though our record is what it is, we play in one of the toughest conferences in the state. It would be huge for our program to win a sectional game.“
Harrison will start a lot of juniors, even a couple of freshmen, and feature several two-way players. The offense will revolve around dual-threat quarterback DeShawnDre Brown, mammoth 6-7 tight end Brooks Thomas, and running back Jalen Sutton. The defense, which is allowing 41.4 points per game, will feature quickness in the secondary, with Sutton at linebacker and Thomas at defensive end.
“They have some good weapons,” Barker said. “They’re pretty athletic, they have a tight end that’s really big. Last week we struggled against the empty formation, and when you turn the film on that’s their top formation. So we’ll have to figure out real quick what we’re doing.
“They have speed in the secondary, so we’ll have to be consistent in understanding we won’t make explosive plays every time. We have to put drives together and play a physical, sound game.”
BNL will counter with senior quarterback Memphis Louden (70 of 159 passing for 1,107 yards and six interceptions, with 12 passing touchdowns and 11 on the ground) and junior running back Cal Gates (98 for 814 yards and 10 TDs) leading the way.
“They have a great team” Sutton said. “They’re senior loaded, so they will come and play with intention. We’re in the postseason, and I know they don’t want their senior year to end with a loss to Harrison. We have to match their intensity and energy.
“It would be good for us to jump on them early. We just have to execute. We’ve beaten ourselves in a lot of situations and games we’ve been in. We have to keep playing, play every down.”
That’s Barker’s worst-case scenario: a lackluster team after the two-plus hours on the bus, and falling behind as a heavy favorite on the road.
“We have to make sure, when we get there, we’re not still half asleep and take a while to get going,” Barker said. “It’s the sectional, it’s a new opponent, so we’ll be fired up and ready to go. It’s getting off to a good start. That will be big. If we fall behind early, they’re a team that can be pretty dangerous if they get some confidence.”
All coaches talk about peaking for the postseason, and BNL is coming off back-to-back wins over Madison and Columbus East. While the Stars are still not at full strength (with lineman Junior Arellano still hobbled by a sprained ankle, with key starters Ryker Hughes and Piaire Childs questionable to see action), they have momentum.
The Stars are also seeking to take the first step toward a sectional title. BNL has won only one of those (2011).
“That’s the plan,” Barker said. “You can’t win a sectional if you don’t win the first one. We hope we can get it done.
“We’re on the right track, being able to get wins the last two weeks. Last week we went on the road, to a place we haven’t had much success, and made plays at the end to finish the game. So that was good to see. I don’t know that we’ve played our absolute best game yet, but we’re going in the right direction.”
The winner will face either No.2 Evansville Reitz (9-0) or Boonville (5-4) in the semifinal. On the opposite side of the bracket, Evansville Memorial (6-3) will visit Central (0-9) while Jasper (6-3) will meet Evansville Bosse (3-6).
IHSAA SECTIONAL 24
BNL at EVANSVILLE HARRISON
Kickoff: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Records: BNL 6-3; Evansville Harrison 1-8
Coaches: Derrick Barker, 16-14 in third season at BNL; Moe Sutton, 7-32 in fourth season at Harrison
Sagarin ratings: BNL 60.60; Evansville Harrison 51.95
Series: Evansville Harrison leads 2-1
Last meeting: The Warriors prevailed 42-20 in the 1993 sectional opener at Harrison.
Game notes: BNL has never won a road game in the Evansville area. The winner will face either Evansville Reitz or Boonville in the sectional semifinal. The Stars have won postseason games in back-to-back seasons only once in program history (2011-12). Evansville Harrison has won six sectional titles, the last in 2015.
BNL vs EVANSVILLE OPPONENTS
1987 – lost to Evansville Reitz 35-19
1988 – lost at Evansville Central 26-12
1989 – lost at Castle 55-0
1990 – lost at Evansville Harrison 35-21
1991 – defeated Evansville Harrison 28-25 at BNL
1992 – lost at Evansville North 49-7
1993 – lost at Evansville Harrison 42-20
1994 – lost at Evansville Central 27-20
1995 – lost at Evansville North 36-22
2001 – lost at Evansville Reitz 28-14
2003 – lost to Evansville Reitz 76-7
2004 – lost to Evansville North 35-24
2006 – defeated Evansville North 13-12 at BNL
2006 – lost at Evansville Reitz 40-20
2009 – lost at Castle 21-6
2010 – lost at Castle 42-35 (2OT)
2011 – defeated Castle 26-21 at BNL
2012 – lost at Castle 49-14
2015 – lost to Castle 49-13