When Whiteland coach Darrin Fisher watched film of his team’s opponent in the IHSAA football Class 5A state championship this week, he saw a lot of similarities to his own squad.
“It’s like looking in a mirror, honestly,” Fisher said. “Their formula for winning a football game is the same as ours. It’s going to be a battle of wills.”
Second-ranked Whiteland (12-1) reached the state championship for the first time with a formula that is similar to Fisher’s 17 previous teams at the school. The Warriors average 304 rushing yards per game out of their fly sweep run-based offense, grinding down defenses and then hitting them with big plays at the edges.
Indiana high school football: What you need to know for this weekend's IHSAA state finals
Ninth-ranked Valparaiso (10-3) does it a bit differently out of the spread, but also wants to run. The Vikings got 6-foot, 220-pound junior Travis Davis back from injury and leaned on him heavily in the regional and semistate. Davis ran for 111 yards and 23 carries in a 15-14 win over Merrillville in the regional, then went for 277 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries in a 22-21 overtime win over Fort Wayne Snider.
In the win over Snider, quarterback Justin Clark made a sensational 8-yard run on fourth down in overtime, crossing the field and almost falling to the turf before diving over two defenders into the end zone. Valparaiso coach Bill Marshall called for the 2-point conversion, which Davis ran into the end zone and sent the Vikings into the state championship.
Marshall said the decision to go for the 2-point conversion was made before the start of overtime after a discussion with assistant Don Clark.
“They probably would have hated me if it hadn’t worked out the way it did,” said Marshall, who also led the Vikings to the state championship game in 2019. “But I think in that type of game with the way we had been running the football the way we had and the faith we had in our group thus far, it was a testament to them being able to go ahead and get it done.”
While Valparaiso has won its last three tournament games by a combined nine points, Whiteland has been a little more dominant. The Warriors blanked Franklin 24-0 in the sectional championship before pulling away from Plainfield 49-14 in the regional and getting ahead of Castle in the semistate on the way to a 21-7 win.
Marshall said Clark’s run in overtime is fitting of Valpo’s season.
“We’ve kind of been the underdog story throughout the entire year and I think we are still to this point coming into the state championship game,” Marshall said. “I think that’s kind of (Clark’s) mentality as well. To really put on the line in that last game and throughout the season is huge, not only for his confidence but for our team’s confidence.”
Here is a closer look at the Class 5A title game:
Valparaiso (10-3) vs. Whiteland (12-1)
Valparaiso No. 9; Whiteland No. 2
7 p.m. Saturday, at Lucas Oil Stadium
How to watch
Bally Sports Indiana and IHSAAtv.org
Valparaiso won its only state football championship in Class 3A in 1975. The Vikings have 28 state titles across all sports, led by 13 from gymnastics and 11 more between the cross-country programs. Whiteland has never won a state championship in any sport.
Valparaiso coach Bill Marshall, 40, is in his fifth season and brought the Vikings to the 5A state finals in 2019. Marshall graduated from in 2005 Valparaiso University, where he coached one season before moving over to the high school in 2006 and working as an assistant for 12 years before he was hired in 2018. Marshall has a record of 51-11 at Valparaiso.
Whiteland coach Darrin Fisher, 55, is a 1985 graduate of Mooresville and 1989 graduate of Ball State. He had stops at Muncie Central and Avon as an assistant before coaching Cascade from 1991-95. He moved to Iowa due to his wife’s job in 1996 and coached at two different schools for nine seasons. He is in his 18th season at Whiteland, compiling a 130-72 record. He is 191-144 overall.
A closer look at Valparaiso
Valparaiso is playing in its fifth football state championship game and second in four years. The Vikings secured their spot on the state finals by converting a 2-point conversion in overtime for a 22-21 victory over top-ranked Fort Wayne Snider. Valpo also defeated fifth-ranked Merrillville 15-14 to win the regional championship.
The Valparaiso offense is led by a spread attack that wants to run. The Vikings average 243 yards on the ground and 330 overall. Justin Clark, the junior quarterback, leads Valpo with 950 rushing yards and has eight TD runs. Clark has thrown for 885 yards and four TDs. Other top rushers are junior Thomas Davis (863 yards and 11 TDs in eight games) and sophomore Thomas Burda (769 yards, 11 TDs). The top receiver is senior Rocco Micciche (20 catches, 273 yards, one TD).
The defense allows just 100 yards rushing per game. That group features senior linebacker Alex Rodriguez (82 tackles, four tackles for loss), junior defensive backs Tyler VerSchure (35 tackles, seven interceptions) and Sammy Ampeliotis (75 tackles, three tackles for loss), senior linebacker Peter Crossin (70 tackles, seven tackles for loss) and junior linebacker Ty Veen (63 tackles, 10 tackles for loss).
A closer look at Whiteland
Whiteland is ranked fourth in 5A in scoring at 35.5 points per game. The defense third in 5A, allowing 13.1 points per game. The Warriors have played just one top-10 opponent in the tournament in No. 8 Franklin, winning 24-0 in the sectional championship.
The Whiteland offense averages 304 rushing yards per game and 383 overall. The ground attack is led by senior Peyton Emberton (1,297 yards, 11 TDs), senior Jonathan Crowley (862 yards, 10 TDs) and sophomore Nyrius Moore-Smith (583 yards, five TDs). Senior quarterback Kevin Denham has thrown for 1,027 yards and 13 TDs. Cameron Cooper (20 catches, 407 yards, five TDs) and Gunnar Hicks (17 catches, 368 yards, four TDs) are the top receivers.
The Whiteland defense allows 109 yards per game on the ground and 223 total per game. The top players on defense are senior linebackers Brady Stanifer (115 tackles, nine tackles for loss) and Dalton Hughes (81 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks), freshman linebacker Jordan Palmer (72 tackles), senior defensive back Kayden Milligan (64 tackles) and senior lineman Mason Darlington (62 tackles, five sacks).
How Valparaiso can win
Both teams want to run the ball, which makes winning at the line of scrimmage imperative. For Valpo, a winning formula starts with handing the ball to Jones, who ran for 277 yards and two TDs on 43 carries against Snider. Jones’ numbers will likely directly correlate to Valparaiso’s success on the scoreboard.
How Whiteland can win
Run the ball. Stop the run. It’s pretty simple. Whiteland is diverse in the run game, but also has done a nice job stopping the run against quality opponents all season.
Whiteland 24, Valparaiso 23.
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IHSAA football 5A state finals preview: Valparaiso vs. Whiteland