|Ethan Buresh capped the comeback, proving once again that Wabash always fights.
By Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
CRAWFORDSVILLE, Ind. -- The thing about a mantra is if you repeat it enough times you start to believe in its reality.
"Wabash Always Fights" is more than just a series of words strung together; it is a core belief shared by the Little Giants football program and its supporters. It's not just a motivational phrase; "#WAF" is more than an inspirational hashtag.
It's a mentality that ensures the Little Giants can never be counted out.
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There might not be a game more emblematic of the mantra than Wabash's second round playoff victory over Thomas More on Nov. 21, 2015. When future generations of Little Giants matriculate and want to know what "Wabash Always Fights" is all about, the coaching staff can just flip on tape of that game and let the film speak for itself.
Six turnovers. Terrible special teams coverage. A 27-13 halftime deficit and a 27-16 deficit heading into the fourth quarter. Wabash had its back against the wall, its season on the brink. The Little Giants never wavered. Why? Because, well, you know how the saying goes.
"We did all the things you typically do when you lose a football game, but our guys kept battling, particularly defensively," said head coach Erik Raeburn. "Our guys have that 'Wabash Always Fights' mentality and despite not playing a perfect game found a way to scratch out a victory."
Quarterback Connor Rice played his worst game of the year. He made some poor throws and questionable decisions. The junior knew that his team was never out of it, though. When he evaded three sacks on 4th and 14 and lofted a pass to the end zone, it was no surprise that he found an open target. He followed that up with a perfect throw to the back of the end zone that was hauled in for a two point conversion by Oliver Page, who converted to wide receiver from quarterback midway through the season.
"It's just going off that 'Wabash Always Fight' mentality," said Rice. "We never give up. We all knew that we had it, we just had to keep grinding away and play hard. We made plays when we needed to."
By now, you've seen how the game ended. Andrew Tutsie tied the game at 27 with a field goal with 55 seconds to play. The teams then exchanged turnovers in the final minute of regulation, forcing overtime. The Little Giants came up with the big play in overtime, as Ethan Buresh picked up a fumble forced by LV Bowden and raced 75 yards to paydirt, sending Wabash into the national quarterfinals.
The final play will get all the glory, deservedly so, but it was the way Wabash stuck to its game plan despite trailing in the second half that impressed the most. The Little Giants kept feeding senior running back Mason Zurek, who became the school's all-time leading rusher in the win, and played the tenacious defense that carried them through a perfect regular season.
"Our guys did a great job of staying focused and playing the next play," said Raeburn. "All those cliché things that you say that are really important to do, and are a lot harder to do than say, I think our guys have done a great job of that all season."
That play-to-play concentration is the product of a seasonlong focus that has been different this year. Not that previous Wabash teams lacked focus, but both coaches and players recognize something different about the 2015 Little Giants. They don't just save their best practices for Monon Bell week or the playoffs. They have brought the same intensity and attention to detail to each Monday practice this season, and that has carried them through 12 Saturdays and counting.
"This group has been fantastic in terms of their focus and their approach," said Raeburn. "We felt like this year our preparation has been excellent because the focus, commitment, and dedication have been exceptional."
"We've talked about all year that we felt there's something special about us," added Rice. "We've been finding ways to win all year. We're led by great seniors and our coaches continuously put us in positions to be successful."
In the second half against Thomas More, the Little Giants defense played better against the run and on first downs, putting the Saints in more discomfort on third downs. That led to more pressure and six sacks, none bigger than Bowden's on the final snap of the game.
Buresh, as he so often has been for the Little Giants, was in the right place at the right time.
"I just saw the ball laying there, so I scooped it up and ran as fast as I could to the end zone," said the junior rush end.
This actually may have been the second-most impressive play he made in the game—his leaping interception while being blocked at the line of scrimmage in the first half should not be overlooked. But the game-winning fumble return in overtime evoked memories of his pick six against Hampden-Sydney in the 2014 opener and his blocked field goal return touchdown against UW-Whitewater in the second round of the 2014 playoffs.
"Honestly, he makes plays like that all the time," said Raeburn. "He finds a way when he gets the ball in his hands to get in the end zone."
The defense that dominated the regular season and the second half of the Thomas More game is a trusted unit. Knowing what they can do when they play up to their potential, there is no need for Wabash to ever panic.
"They make me feel at ease a lot," said Rice. "They stepped up when they had to. They are a fantastic group."
We know that Wabash will always fight and never give up, but that has taken on a bigger meaning this season. There is a different hunger that burns inside the Little Giants in 2015. The second round win was a historic comeback, but Wabash is not satisfied with a trip to the quarterfinals.
"In past years, I always felt like there was a sense of complacency about win the conference, win one game in the playoffs, then probably lose," said Zurek. "Obviously, nobody said it, but it kind of always seemed like that was in the back of everyone's minds.
"We do believe that we have a chance to make a really deep run this year. We're about halfway through that."
And you know Wabash won't go down without a fight.