Evan Lepak: 'Why not us?': A look back at Northridge's journey to state

·5 min read

Nov. 28—'Why not us?'

If you're familiar with the Northridge football program in any capacity, you've probably heard those three words in unison at least a few times since the season kicked off in August. And if you've been around since the Raiders began their postseason run with a dominating win against NorthWood over a month ago, the number of times you've heard it has likely doubled or tripled.

Week-in and week-out, after every playoff win, those three words became more and more emphatic. I'll be honest, I didn't always believe the Raiders truly believed what they were saying. But after each week, it became increasingly clear that these kids did believe.

The convincing wins over the Panthers and Columbia City were a nice way to shine a light on Northridge after what was a very erratic regular season, but I wasn't fully convinced this team had the pieces to make a deep run. That was until the Raiders went toe-to-toe with then-undefeated Leo in the sectional final.

The Raiders smothered a rushing attack that averaged over 300 yards per game, holding the Lions to just 139 yards in a game Northridge controlled most of the way. After the thrilling victory that came in overtime off the foot of kicker Dylan Ritchie, I started thinking this group could be a "team of destiny."

The funny thing is, destiny had nothing to do with this group. It was all the hard work. It was the belief in each other, and most importantly, it was the belief in first-year head coach Chad Eppley.

After dominating Mississinewa on a frigid night in Middlebury and winning a regional championship, the Raiders went on the road in a hostile environment against New Prairie with a state championship appearance hanging in the balance. The Raiders found themselves down seven at halftime with things looking shaky with one half of play remaining.

I started to question whether the magic had finally run out for Northridge, but as it turned out, there was more than enough left. What turned out to be the game-winning 76-yard touchdown pass from Tagg Gott to Jethro Hochstetler with 1:31 left was incredible to witness, and it kind of defined the message Eppley and his staff had preached throughout the season. On a cold night where neither team had much success through the air, one of Northridge's longest passing plays of the season sent them to state.

"Why not us?"

So much credit for this state championship run belongs to Eppley. He made the offensive adjustments after his team lost four of five games to end the regular season, a stretch like that should mentally break the wills of 15-to-18 year old kids. As someone who's been in that position as a former high school athlete myself, it's very easy to give up after so much disappointment week after week. But this team didn't quit. This team didn't fold, and they all deserve a ton of credit for that.

Eppley's energy that he's known for on the sidelines truly rubbed off on his team this season, and it takes a strong-willed person to collectively bring together over 50 kids and have them play as one.

Eppley managed to do that when it mattered the most: in the postseason.

Obviously, Saturday's result wasn't what the Raiders hoped for, but the loss shouldn't take away from how special this occurrence was.

A team that was 5-4 at the end of the regular season, from a high school nestled in a small town with just over 3,000 people within, made its first-ever state championship under a first-year coach. The energy at Lucas Oil Stadium was special, the excitement was palpable and it's a feeling the city of Middlebury and all of those that help make Northridge High School what it is will not soon forget.

The "storybook ending" wasn't necessary with a state championship victory. That ending came before the Raiders even made the three-hour trip south to Indianapolis.

So, kudos to coach Eppley and his staff. Kudos to the players, and kudos to everyone who helped the Raiders during this postseason run.

Lastly, congratulations to the senior class. You've helped build the beginning of something special at Northridge within the football program. This team preached the strong bond they have with each other all postseason long, and the senior class was truly at the center of that bond.

"It was insane," said Northridge senior Evan Kaehr of getting to experience this run with the rest of his senior class. "The fact that I got to play football with the same kids I've been playing with since third grade is just insane. I walked up to them afterwards, and I was like 'guys, I love you so much. When we were little, we didn't think we were going to get here, and now look where we are. There's no need to be crying, because we accomplished a dream.' It just means the world that I was able to play with that group of guys over anyone else."

Evan Lepak can be reached at evan.lepak@goshennews.com or574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter

@EvanMPLepak.

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