By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, allegedly said it first. Since then, it’s become the most quoted maxim in sports, although overuse does not make it any less true. Defense wins championships. Evansville Reitz hopes to prove it once again.
The Panthers, ranked No.2 in the Class 4A state poll, have been perfect through 10 weeks. That’s impressive on its own merit. How did they get to this point? That question might have multiple correct answers, but the most common and accepted response is a dynamic defense that ranks among the best in the state.
Reitz has surrendered a miserly 7.5 points per game, and only six teams in Indiana have allowed fewer thus far this season. It’s no coincidence the combined record of those six is 58-1. Scoring on the Panthers has happened about as often as a solar eclipse. That’s the extreme challenge facing Bedford North Lawrence in the semifinal round of Sectional 24 on Friday night. Score enough against defensive demons to scare, in fact conquer, the sectional favorite.
BNL (7-3) will host Reitz (10-0) in the second round of the IHSAA’s state tournament. The winner will clash with either Jasper (7-3) or Evansville Memorial (7-3) in the championship battle on Nov. 3.
Reitz’s defensive stats are incredible. The Panthers have authored three shutouts, and only three foes have reached double figures. They have recorded a whopping 93 tackles for loss, including 45 sacks, which means most opposing offenses have gone backward more than forward. They’ve forced 23 turnovers.
“They play really fast, really aggressive,” BNL coach Derrick Barker said. “They have good players at all three levels of the defense. The defensive linemen control their gaps, the linebackers are really aggressive, and they keep everything in front of them in the passing game. They’re the best defense we’ve seen all year.”
Let’s meet these mini-Monsters of the Midway, these Punishers of the Pocket City. Up front in their 3-3 alignment, the line features end Levi Oxley (second in the state with 16 sacks, plus 20 tackles for loss) and Kentucky Wesleyan recruit Calab Utley (20 tackles for loss). The linebackers include Ayden Wells (104 tackles) and A.J. Coates (12 tackles for loss). They spend most of their time across the line of scrimmage. Alex Sitzman (three picks) and Roland Vera (three picks) patrol the secondary. The majority of them are seniors with three years of varsity experience.
“It’s not like they’re sending guys on the blitz all the time,” Barker said. “They’re good at understanding how to attack protections, and they beat one-on-one blocks.”
Invincible? BNL will counter with a productive attack (33 points per game) led by senior quarterback Memphis Louden (1,185 passing yards and 13 touchdowns, plus 580 rushing yards and 13 TDs), junior running back Cal Gates (918 yards and 11 TDs, plus a team-high 17 receptions and 5 more TDs), and a solid offensive line that will be back to full strength as Junior Arellano returns from a three-week absence with an ankle injury. The Stars also expect Ryker Hughes and Piaire Childs to be ready for the offense.
“The quarterback is really good, a very good player,” Reitz coach Cory Brunson said. “Gates runs the ball hard, so they do some good things. It’s a very balanced team on the offensive side.”
The battles on the opposite side will be equally intense. BNL must contain the versatile Vera (a team-high 49 catches for 649 yards and 5 TDs, plus 482 rushing yards and 11 scores), the passing of Ben Davies (108 of 165 for 1,545 yards and 14 TDs), receiver Hayden Summers (38 for 566 yards and 7 TDs), and the running of Troy Davis (698 yards, 6 TDs). Vera is a unique weapon.
“It’s all three phases of the game with him,” Barker said. “He does everything – catches a lot of passes, runs the ball, he will play quarterback, punt, return kicks, play in the secondary. He’s just an exceptionally good player. It will be tough to keep him in check.”
“We have a handful of guys that can contribute,” Brunson said. “It’s hard to key on just one guy.”
What is BNL’s advantage? Home turf. Reitz has played only once outside the glow of the Evansville city lights (at Jasper) this year, and this road trip to BNL will be the program’s longest in nine years. The Stars struggled in the first half last week at Evansville Harrison, so the threat of bus lag is real.
“We have to be ready to go right from the jump,” Barker said. “We can’t feel it out and test the water. As soon as the ball is kicked, we have to be ready to go, execute at full speed and our best level, keep applying the pressure.
“We have to play a clean game, we can’t beat ourselves. We have to get off to a fast start, we have to win the field position battle. We can’t turn the ball over or give up the explosive plays. We have to tackle better than we did last week. They’re good enough, we don’t need to help them beat us. If we play our best game, we can play with them.”
BNL has done that. It’s three losses, all on the road against ranked teams, all came down to the final drive of the fourth quarter. The Stars can legitimately argue they are three plays away from being undefeated. Of course, ifs and buts don’t win games. “We have to prove we can be in that position to compete, do it for all four quarters, and finish the job,” Barker concluded.
Reitz leads the series 4-0, and the last time it made the journey to Lawrence County was a memorable affair – for all the wrong reasons. In 2003, Reitz crushed the Stars 76-7, blasting to a 70-0 lead at halftime. The last meeting was a 40-20 Reitz win in the 2006 sectional final.
The Panthers are seeking their first sectional crown since 2016, while BNL won its only championship in 2011.
“The sectional we’re in is very tough,” Brunson said. “Hopefully we can do all the little things right to get a win and go on, get the opportunity to win the title.”
IHSAA SECTIONAL 24
EVANSVILLE REITZ at BNL
Kickoff: Friday, 8 p.m.
Records: Evansville Reitz 10-0 (ranked No.2); BNL 7-3
Coaches: Cory Brunson, 28-15 in fourth season at Reitz (62-55 overall); Derrick Barker, 17-14 in third season at BNL
Sagarin ratings: Evansville Reitz 85.54; BNL 60.76
Series: Reitz leads 4-0
Last meeting: Reitz prevailed 40-20 in the 2006 sectional final at Reitz.
Game notes: Reitz, which won state championships in 2007 and ‘09, won its last sectional title in 2016. BNL won its only sectional in 2011. The winner will face either Jasper (7-3) or Evansville Memorial (7-3) in the sectional final.