Cougars eighth-grade football shows glimpse of what is to come for special class

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LINDEN — On Monday night, the lights went out on Northridge Middle School football. 

With a 40-8 thumping of Fountain Central, the eighth-graders walked off the field as Cougar football players for the last time. Not only will they be Chargers next year as freshmen, but so will the new-named middle school — North Montgomery — to match the high school. 

And as the sun set, the final horn sounded, and the lights dimmed — 18th-year coach Tom Lutz walked away grinning. 

The Cougars finished the season 6-3 — three more losses than what they hoped for after an 8-1 season as seventh-graders — but Lutz realizes this group was among the best he’s ever coached, and the best is likely still yet to come.

“It’s one of the best that I’ve had,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of comparing from watching them play in seventh-grade going into to eighth-grade this year and a lot of comparison to the class that had Baylee Adams and Devon Zachary, and Alex Parsons, and those guys. Similar athletic ability, similar speed, and similar size and strength.”

Adams, Zachary, and Parsons, among others like Jordan Banta, Jordan Lewis, and Cole Clore went undefeated as eighth-graders in 2011, and onto successful high school careers in football among other sports.

This fall, the current eighth-grade team of Cale Anderson, Dylan Ballenger, Landon Birge, Colin Campbell, Kerbe Cottrell, Ross Dyson, Espen Eubanks, Delijah Ferch, Andy Grimes, Carson Grote, Cole Henderson, Noah Hopkins, Jacob Hughes, Jarrod Kirsch, Corbnin Meadows, Jacob Rice, Gabe Shirar, Austin Sulc, Roman Utterback, Brasen Walters, and Sam Wilhite set many new records for eighth-grade teams coached by Lutz.

They scored the most points in a season with 242, total first downs with 97, first downs rushing at 71, total touchdowns with 34, rushing touchdowns with 21, total yardage at 2,234, interceptions with 12, and defensive turnovers forced with 20.

Size and Speed Stands Out 

Size matters at the middle school level, and this years’ team used that to their advantage week in and week out.

“Walking out for a lot of games even against teams like Lebanon and some of those this year,” Lutz said. “I would see what I’ve seen in the past, but just the opposite where we would go up against Tri-West, and Danville and Lebanon, and it’s like how are they that much bigger than us, and this year we would walk out on the field and teams would be saying that about our team.”

At tailback, Sulc used his size and speed to rush for 751 yards, the third-most in the Lutz era, and 12 touchdowns, including three Monday night, while Hopkins used his lankiness and speed to recover a pair of fumbles.

Also in the win over Fountain Central, many Cougars showed off their speed. Dyson took off for a big gain on third and long, and later hit both Shirar and Utterback for wide-open touchdowns. Dyson threw for 732 yards, added 484 on the ground, and accounted for 13 total touchdowns, while Shirar caught nine passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. 

Rice led the way defensively with 72 tackles, while Sulc added 52, and Ross 43. 

Learning How To Lose

This class has never really lost.

14-4 in two years of middle school football, only a handful of losses so far in basketball, and the baseball trophies keep adding up. So Lutz knew losing was going to be a tough road to travel.

“That was something we had to talk about,” Lutz said. “It’s sometimes hard to handle losing when you’re not used to it. And that’s fine, you want to be used to winning. I think for them it was the biggest mental challenge of the season was losing a couple early that they won last year, knowing that Tri-West was still sitting out there for them that was a big game they wanted to get.”

Northridge lost close games to Danville and Southmont early in the season, and another to Tri-West late, but the growth didn’t go unnoticed by Lutz.

“They responded pretty well,” he said. “Against Danville we regrouped after some big adversity hit, in the second half we were able to play a lot better, and really focus on what we were doing and not on all the things you can’t control. I saw some progress on the mental part of it this year, even though they got three losses instead of one.”

Marching Forward

The success for this class is only in its early stages. 

The parents believe it, the fans see it, and the players know it. 

No matter the sport — North Montgomery will have an incoming class that is ready to change the sports landscape — and Lutz sees it. 

“I hope they continue to play multiple sports,” he said. “This class is talented in a lot of different things, and I mean there’s some kids that are good basketball players, good wrestlers, good baseball players, and just everything. I hope they continue that, because I think it’s going to make them better competitors, better athletes, and in the end make them better football players.”

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