by Rich Torres, Special to IHSAA.org
One word printed boldly across East Central head coach Jake Meiners’ shirt echoed the result Friday after the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Class 4A football state championship.
“Dominate,” Meiners’ apparel read, as he celebrated his team’s sixth straight victory, his first-career state championship and the third overall football state title in program history.
The fourth-ranked 4A Trojans (13-2) lived up to the word inside Lucas Oil Stadium, defeating the seventh-ranked New Prairie Cougars (13-2), decisively, 37-7, behind a trio of 100-yard rushers and a relentless defense.
East Central junior Josh Ringer rushed for 167 yards on 23 carries and tied an IHSAA 4A state finals record with four rushing touchdowns, while senior Eli Aston carried the ball five times for 114 yards, a touchdown and blocked a punt on special teams.
The Trojans opened their fifth state championship appearance since 1993 by scoring on their first four possessions and five of the team’s initial six drives overall to lead 37-0 before the Cougars could even respond.
“We like to win, and we’ll take the one-point wins, but we like to dominate. That’s why it’s across my shirt right now. Our coaches wear it. Our players have t-shirts with it because we like to go out and put on those kinds of performances,” Meiners said. “We didn’t come into today thinking we were going to dominate. We came into today thinking we need to score one more point than New Prairie.”
One touchdown became two, then three in the first quarter alone and four overall before halftime with Ringer finding the end zone on the final four.
East Central wasted no time in its pursuit of the school’s first football state title since 2017 (4A) under former coach Justin Roden. The Trojans won their first championship in 1994 (4A) with Rod Ballart at the helm and entered this year’s title game .500 with losses in 2015 (4A) and 1993 (4A).
The Trojans’ game-opening drive required less than a minute, spanned 71 yards and was concluded in four plays with Aston capping the possession with a 59-yard rushing touchdown.
Ringer delivered the finishing touches on the next three drives, including runs measuring 32 and 24 yards before the second quarter.
An Aston blocked punt near midfield five plays after the start of the second quarter that senior Rhett Smith recovered setup Ringer’s next scoring opportunity on the ensuing drive.
After a clutch 19-yard pass from East Central junior quarterback Cole Burton to junior Ryan Brotherton on fourth-and-11 from New Prairie’s 31 and a 9-yard run by Aston, Ringer scored for a third time from 3 yards out.
“Once somebody else does good, and they try to stop it, we have so many more people who will get more opportunities and will execute,” Aston said. “Really once we got that win last week, and we knew we were here, we understood we had to execute. This was the game to win. This was the most important. We ended up winning and it sure feels good.”
The journey proved East Central’s motivation.
Losing at Evansville Memorial, 17-14, in last year’s regional title game, the Trojans called the 2022 campaign their comeback tour.
East Central avenged their 2022 regional loss with a 35-21 victory at Evansville Memorial this postseason and eliminated No. 2 Roncalli with an overtime field goal, 24-21, at semi-state. East Central lost to Roncalli, 21-19, during the regular season on Oct. 14.
“After losing to Evansville Memorial last year and losing to Roncalli in season this year, all we wanted was revenge,” Smith said. “That’s exactly what we got. To go there and beat Memorial and then beat Roncalli at home for semistate, there was no better feeling than this, of course.”
Smith finished the state title game with six total tackles, second to senior Carson Koelling’s nine, and had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to open the second half.
New Prairie was limited to 118 yards rushing and were 3 of 10 on third down and lost two fumbles. East Central’s defense kept the Cougars scoreless until the final 2:43 of the game.
Cougars’ junior quarterback Marshall Kmiecik broke up the shutout with a 21-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter. He completed 9 of 17 pass attempts for 159 yards and rushed for a team-high 52 yards.
“Once we get going on defense, it’s about momentum and keeping that momentum. And it helps the offense out a ton,” Smith said. “Once we get that momentum, we just keep rolling and rolling. We might slip up a little bit, but we always come back, and I think that’s what makes this defense special.”
Sophomore placekicker Nathan McFee added to East Central’s lead 30-0 in the third quarter with a 35-yard field goal before Ringer tied the 4A state finals record with a 6-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The 4A state championship rushing touchdown record is shared with Brian Lewis (Jasper, 2001), Gino Gillum (Cathedral, 2011), Tyler Weller (New Prairie, 2014) and Gillum again (Cathedral, 2012).
“Our O-line went out there and dominated. That’s the only reason I can do what I do,” Ringer said. “We put together some drives and our defense created turnovers. All credit goes to them.”
Junior Ryan Brotherton had 100 yards on 18 carries as East Central’s third 100-yard rusher. His longest run covered 27 yards. Burton completed 7 of 12 passes for 64 yards. Aston hauled in three passes for 45 receiving yards.
“Our athletes are amazing. I feel like our team feeds off each other’s success. When someone gets a touchdown, everyone else wants one. That really helps us in games.”
The Trojans won seven games this season by 35 points or more. Three of those came in the postseason, including three straight contests to win the Sectional 23 championship – the program’s 21st all-time, second consecutive and sixth in eight years.
Their regional and semi-state titles were the Trojans’ first since winning the 4A state title in 2017, a game Smith has been aiming to replicate as a player for four years.
“I remember coming here (in 2017) and thinking this is awesome. I wanted to do this one day, and I’m here now. It’s awesome,” Smith said. “I could very well see it happen again for us next year. We might be losing a few seniors, but I think with this team, this group and the coaching, we can definitely do it again.”
East Central senior Christian Garrison was named the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award winner for 4A. IN 2017, East Central’s Jayden Williamson earned the same honor.
“We came off that Roncalli win last week, and we said, ‘Hey, we have to get better from Week 14 to Week 15, and I think we did that this week,” Meiners said. “I’m so happy for our program. We’ve had a lot a great coaches come through our program, starting with our first state championship with Rod Ballart. Some couldn’t get this far, but it takes a little bit of luck when you get this far. You have to get a break or two.”
Class 4A Records
Most Points (Tie): 24 by Josh Ringer, East Central vs. New Prairie, 2022.
Most Touchdowns (Tie): 4 by Josh Ringer, East Central vs. New Prairie, 2022.
Most Rushing Touchdowns (Tie): 4 by Josh Ringer, East Central vs. New Prairie, 2022.
East Central High School’s Christian Garrison earns the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award
During the awards ceremony, Christian Garrison of East Central High School was announced by the IHSAA Executive Committee as the recipient of the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award in Class 4A Football.
The award is annually presented to a senior who is nominated by his principal and coach, and has demonstrated excellence in mental attitude, scholarship, leadership, and athletic ability during his four years of high school.
Academically, Christian is a member of the National Honor Society with an impressive 4.094 GPA and has been on Exemplary Honor Roll his entire high school and middle school career. Garrison is also ranked 22nd in his class of over 300 students and scored an impressive 1330 on the SAT.
Christian played a major roll on the defensive line at East Central, a defensive line that has broken several school records this year. The defensive line had only given up just over 10 points a game this season, which has helped get them to the 2022 State Championship Game. Garrison also participates on the East Central Track and Field team in field events.
Christian Garrison is the son of Faith & Joshua Freyer of Sunman, IN and is undecided in his college choice but plans to study pre-med and go on to be a pediatric surgeon.
The award is named in honor of Commissioner Phil N. Eskew, who served as the IHSAA’s third commissioner from 1962-76. Under his leadership, the IHSAA football state tournament was initiated in 1973.
The Indianapolis Colts, the presenting sponsor of the IHSAA state tournament, presented a $1,000 scholarship to East Central High School’s general scholarship fund in the name of Christian Garrison.