OSSIAN-It’s been over a dozen years since the last time both programs had something huge to play for in conference play. When the NHC still existed, 1991 was the last Week 9 championship game in that conference that had a true championship game. Homestead beat New Haven that night 14-13.
On this night at the Courtyard, the Columbia City Eagles did something that only five other teams had ever done in the program’s 102-year history: win a conference championship. The Eagles rallied from a 12-point 4th quarter deficit to beat the previously unbeaten Norwell Knights 25-24.
It was senior night for the Norwell faithful, and that’s how the atmosphere of this game began. It started with Columbia City going for it on 4th and 6 on their first drive. That was unsuccessful. On Norwell’s first drive, they marched to the Columbia City 6-yard line, but couldn’t convert on 4th down.
Columbia City marched to their red zone on the very nice drive, where they were forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal. That made it 3-0 Columbia City with 3:28 left in the first quarter. Just 16 seconds later, Lleyton Bailey on the first play from scrimmage connected with Cohen Bailey near their own sideline for a 74-yard touchdown pass. Norwell led 7-3.
Before the first quarter came to an end, Norwell blocked a punt deep into Columbia City territory, which set up a Lleyton Bailey sneak-in from 1 yard out. After 1 quarter, it was 14-3 Norwell.
The second quarter would be more of the same as Columbia City found themselves 1st and Goal from the 2-yard line. Despite that, Luke Graft had a highlight reel tackle to force them to kick another field goal. Landon Urban’s 19-yard field goal at the 7:46 mark cut Norwell’s lead to 14-6, and Cade Shelton’s interception persevered the lead going into intermission.
The second half started with Norwell getting the ball after deferring before the opening kickoff. As Norwell was starting to move the football, however, Luke Graft uncharacteristically fumbles the ball, where Stratton Fuller recovered it. After three previous tries in the red zone, Columbia City finally found the end zone when Ethan Sievers broke free from the left for a 50-yard touchdown run.
While the Eagles were unable to convert the 2-point conversion, it was down to a 14-12 Norwell lead with 9:38 left in the third quarter. Norwell didn’t waste time getting the offense going on their next try as Lleyton Bailey’s huge 15-yard run eventually led to Jon Colbert finding his way to the end zone after a few Columbia City stops. With 5:07 left in the third quarter, Norwell led 21-12 with seemingly the NE8 championship right at their fingertips.
For a brief moment, it looked like Norwell was going to pull away the way Norwell usually does it. Columbia City quarterback Colton Pieper was picked off for a second time by Trace Moser and Norwell was right in the end zone. Norwell had a 1st and Goal situation from the 7, but Columbia City forced them to take the points instead of going for the touchdown. Austin DeLeon’s 21-yard field goal gave Norwell their largest lead of the game at 24-12 with 2:18 left in the third quarter.
Little did we know that this would be Norwell’s final red zone drive of the entire game. But I mean Norwell is up 24-12 going into the fourth quarter with the best defense and rushing defense in the state of Indiana. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the fourth quarter saw the winds picking up, and so did Columbia City’s intensity on defense. On the first play of the quarter, Norwell knowingly have control of the game threw a pick to Columbia City’s Cohen Payne in tight coverage. That was one of two major plays that changed the outcome of the game. Columbia City kept grinding and grinding until they found life when Josh Arntz ran it in from 1-yard out to cut it to 24-19 with 7:05 left.
Then Columbia City gets an emphatic defensive stop forcing Norwell to punt. While the Eagles faced a 4th and 8 situation from around midfield, Columbia City decided to punt it away with 3:34 left. Pieper’s punt gave a fortunate bounce to the Norwell 6. So it was gut-check time for the Columbia City defense.
Facing 3rd and 7 from the 8-yard line, Lleyton Bailey scrambled out of the pocket to the left where Josh Arntz made a show string tackle. That tackle changed the entire outcome of the game as Norwell was 3 yards short of a first down.
Columbia City, now with the football, had one last chance to complete the comeback. After two incompletions to start the drive, Senior Ethan Sievers made the play of the night. 3rd and 10 from the Norwell 48, Sievers found two holes to the right side, then cuts down the middle, break a couple tackles for a 44-yard gain! This would be crucial as Josh Arntz would find his way into the end zone with 49.6 seconds left to give the Eagles the lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
And from there, Columbia City shut down any last second miracle plays. The Eagles won their first conference championship since 2010, and the first outright championship since 1990.
Next week, 8-1 Columbia City travels to 2-7 Wayne for 4A sectional 19, while 8-1 Norwell travels to face 5-4 Heritage in 3A Sectional 27.