Top-ranked and undefeated Pionner hammered North Vermillion in Saturday’s Class A state title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ryan Gregory and Robby General, Special for IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS – Jack Kiser took a small step forward and glanced around at his Pioneer teammates as the Class A football state finals Mental Attitude Award winner was announced inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kiser wasn’t looking for the postgame spotlight Saturday afternoon. The Pioneer star quarterback often deflects in those moments, and he stayed true to character while lined up with his team on the field after he and the top-ranked Panthers easily dismantled No. 7 North Vermillion 60-0.
Instead, Kiser waited, smiled and applauded once he heard Pioneer senior Dustin Sparks’ name called out, he sprung into action to be the first to congratulate his fellow Panther.
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As the undisputed Mr. Football of Cass County, Kiser made his case for the state’s most coveted award well beyond Royal Center’s town limits, and he lived up to expectations with three rushing touchdowns, 235 yards on 16 carries and four pass completions for two more scores against North Vermillion.
But individual accolades mean little, not for Kiser, who was the first to hoist the team’s newest state championship trophy after the program’s 30th straight victory.
“It’s a special game. A state championship, running over and hugging my dad (Aaron), this means a lot,” the Notre Dame recruit said. “My brother (Sam) lost to this team in 2014 by one point (at state), so to come back, get a rematch and win it, it means a lot.”
The Panthers avenged their 27-26 loss in 2014 against the Falcons (13-2) with perfection, finishing the season a flawless 15-0 en route to the program’s first repeat championship and third title overall since 1997.
Though he won’t take credit for it, Kiser was the catalyst.
“It’s a team effort. Football is the ultimate team sport, and we happen to have a lot of good guys,” Kiser emphasized. “When we play our game, it’s hard to stop.”
North Vermillion slowed Pioneer down just once — during the championship’s opening kickoff. The Falcons recovered an onside kick to keep the Panthers’ offense off the field, but Kiser corrected the mishap quickly.
Pioneer won its second-straight Class A state title, this time with a 60-0 dominating performance over North Vermillion.
Mike Williams, Special for IndyStar
Two plays later, the future Fighting Irish linebacker forced a fumble that senior Danny Gregorich recovered at North Vermillion’s 44.
The Panthers didn’t lose possession again, scoring on their next eight offensive series to set four Class A state finals records. Pioneer’s 60 points surpassed the previous record of 59 points by Sheridan in 1988 and Lafayette Central Catholic in 1999. The Panthers’ margin of victory broke Sheridan’s record of 59 set in 1988.
Kiser snapped Class A’s longest standing individual state finals record in the first quarter when he slipped through the front line and cut up field for an 81-yard rushing touchdown that gave Pioneer a 16-0 lead.
The play bested Nick Barnes’ 75-yard run for Mishawaka Marian against Providence in 1973 and set a new state finals mark for longest play from scrimmage.
“He wanted to show what he’s developed into and kind of live up to the hype when he’s got a lot of people questioning where he’s going in the future and where he’s going,” Aaron Kiser said. “It’s a culmination. It’s been a fun ride.”
The Panthers made it decisive with 454 yards in total offense, 21 first downs and 366 yards rushing.
“Having a player at the caliber of Jack Kiser, people were going to be gunning for us and we were going to get everyone’s best each and every week. We constantly told the guys, we don’t care who we’re playing, we want to improve every week, and hopefully we’re at our best Week 15,” Pioneer coach Adam Berry said. “I think we were at our best.”
Historic is another suitable adjective as Pioneer entered as the first Class A team to make three straight championship appearances since Lafayette Central Catholic made it four consecutive years from 2009-12.
“This is unbelievable. The season starts and you set the goal to win a state championship. You go back-to-back and do something the school has never done, it means a lot to us,” Kiser said. “You can say the second time is harder because you have all that expectation, but at the same time, you know the ropes, you know the journey. We were motivated all season, and we got it done.”
The finality of the victory slowly hit Kiser and his family shortly after team photos in the end zone. The third of three brothers, Jack grew up admiring his oldest sibling, Bryce, who went on to play at Illinois State. He looked up to Sam, who suffered state championship heartbreak in 2014.
Along with the trio has been their father, Aaron, who coached the boys in youth football and watched Jack bookend his journey with another state medal.
“It’s just strange because he’s the last one of three boys,” Pioneer assistant coach Aaron Kiser remarked as he wrestled with the moment. “It’s been a long process. It brings out some emotion in you, but a lot of hard work has gone into it, a lot of pressure this year to repeat.
“That was my last game. I’m done. I’m going to follow him now and go to college games. We only live an hour and 15 minutes away (from South Bend). I’m going to have a lot of fun and travel to watch his games.”
Neither father or son will forget the last high school game or the efficiency. Pioneer was 5-for-5 on red zone chances and stifling on defense, posting its 11th shutout of the year. The Panthers’ defense forced three fumbles, six turnovers overall and recorded an interception by Erza Lewellen. Pioneer converted North Vermillion’s turnovers into 28 points.
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Gregorich rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns for Pioneer. Addai Lewellen, a sophomore, had a rushing touchdown, while sophomore Erza Lewellen and Sparks both caught touchdown passes from Kiser.
“The Kiser name is well known around Pioneer. Everyone knows it in the community. Everyone knows it around our conference,” Berry said. “The family is happy for each other. They are proud of Jack. We wish there were more Kisers coming along, but Jack is the last one, and we’ve enjoyed it the past four years.”
Kiser undeniably left an imprint, improving 44-1 the past three years.
“We knew he was a special player as a young kid. You just didn’t know what type of player he would end up being,” Berry said. “The thing we’re most proud of is how he stayed humbled throughout these four years. He could care less about the individual awards. He’s more concerned about what the teams does. That just doesn’t happen in Royal Center, Indiana.”
Pioneer 60, North Vermillion 0
Pioneer 16 16 22 6 — 60
N. Vermillion 0 0 0 0 — 0
P – Addai Lewellen 9 run (Jack Kiser run)
P – Kiser 81 run (Kiser run)
P – Kiser 1 run (A. Lewellen run)
P – Danny Gregorich 3 run (Ezra Lewellen run)
P – E. Lewellen 15 pass from Kiser (Gregorich run)
P – Kiser 40 run (run failed)
P – Dustin Sparks 21 pass from Kiser (Miles Von Tobel pass from Kiser)
P – Gregorich 13 run (run failed)
Rushing — Pioneer: Kiser 16-235, Gregorich 9-88, Von Tobel 2-29, A. Lewellen 2-11, E. Lewellen 3-7, Team 3-(minus-4); North Vermillion: Wyatt Reynolds 14-42, Christian Myers 15-29, Jonathan Kilgore 3-(minus-2), Brennan Ellis 4-(minus-3).
Passing — Pioneer: Kiser 4-6-0 88; North Vermillion: Ellis 7-18-1 70, Reynolds 0-2-0 0, Kilgore 0-1-0 0.
Receiving — Pioneer: E. Lewellen 2-59, Sparks 1-21, Von Tobel 1-8; North Vermillion: Kirk Carron 2-35, Reynolds 2-7, Corey Buchhaas 1-10, Myers 1-9, Kilgore 1-9.