On paper, there seems to be little difference in the state of the Hoopeston Area football team from last year until now.
Twelve months ago, the Cornjerkers concluded a 2-7 season with a high-scoring one-point win (39-38) against Milford.
Last week, the school ended another 2-7 season with a high-scoring one-point win (42-41) against Milford.
Jeff Ohlemeyer was an assistant last fall and the head coach this season. He said what's seen in the final standings doesn't reflect the progress made by the program.
"If you take out the first two games, when we were shut out, we averaged 22 points the last six games," Ohlemeyer said. "The difference (from 2006) is like night and day."
Quarterback Brock Baker was a take-charge player as a senior. He and his teammates successfully switched strategies at Milford after learning of the game-day dismissal of Daryl Brown, one of the team's top receivers.
"We had to change gears rapidly," said Ohlemeyer, whose intent was to establish the run against the Bearcats. "What we did was a testament to Brock Baker. He put us on his back and carried us. What an incredible performance he had."
When Ohlemeyer tabulated the final statistics, he found Baker had rushed for 201 yards on 30 carries and passed for 301 yards on 19 completions.
"It was quite a show," Ohlemeyer said. "Brock took over in the second half. Most of the time, we had an empty backfield. We ran shotgun with five wide (receivers) most of the game."
Six Cornjerkers caught passes in the finale, and five are among the 40 squad members who were underclassmen this year. The roster size represents another major improvement from last fall, when 24 underclassmen were available at season's end.
"The second half of the Bismarck game (Week 7) and for the most part against Westville (Week 8), we played as well as we could," Ohlemeyer said. "We hope that is a precursor of things to come."
Baker didn't just limit his production to offense in his final prep football game. He registered the team's only interception and had six solo tackles.
"When they went up 41-34 with about four minutes left, they went for two and Brock stopped (Calvin) VanHoveln on the conversion run," Ohlemeyer said. "It almost seemed like we were destined to win that game."
Coach Brian Plotner is beginning to think if not for bad luck, his team would have no luck this year.
The coach had been anticipating the return of sophomore Lance Hubbard from a foot injury and said "we even held him out of the JV game (Oct. 15) to make sure he was ready for Friday," Plotner said.
He saw some playing time in the Storm's 34-9 regular season- ending triumph against Oakwood/ Armstrong-Potomac before sustaining a different injury.
"He broke his finger late in the game and is out for the rest of the year," Plotner said.
Hubbard was sidelined from the fourth through the eighth games.
Salt Fork (7-2) will host Heyworth (5-4) in a first-round Class 1A playoff game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Jamaica High School.
"It was a big deal to the kids to earn a home playoff game," Plotner said. "It's a nice re-ward for the kids to get to this point."
Caleb Williams, filling in for injured Brandon Tuggle at linebacker, had a season-high 17 tackles against the Comets. Chet Moreland had 14 stops, Matt Ford had 12 and Sean and Cody Nicholson each had 10.
"Caleb is undersized (155 pounds), but he's an aggressive kid and a sound tackler," Plotner said.
Sean Nicholson had three sacks, and Cody Nicholson re-covered a fumble.
Salt Fork had its first 100-yard rusher against O/A-P. Jon Knoll (who caught a team-high four passes) gained 103 yards on the ground on four carries.
"The game was a good learning experience for kids who have been around the program but haven't necessarily participated in big games," Plotner said. "It was a game where we had to earn a victory (to assure a first-round home game), and it was a good atmosphere to get ready for this week."
The state's second-ranked Class 2A team completed its second consecutive 9-0 regular season. Coach Guy Goodlove is impressed by how freshman Matt Maser has taken control of the team during the games when starter Dustin Billings has been suspended for disciplinary reasons.
Billings is obligated to sit out one more game before he can return to competition.
"Matt has been an unsung hero these last three weeks," Goodlove said. "He has quietly come in and gotten the job done. When we were third and long (against Georgetown-Ridge Farm in the Coal Bucket), he stepped up and completed passes.
"When we needed something to happen, he came through. He doesn't play like a freshman but like he has played varsity for four years. We have confidence in Matt. He's a freshman with a lot of confidence in his ability and a lot of confidence with his teammates.
"He has stepped into a tough situation and made the best of it."
In his three games as a starter, Maser has completed 7 of 11 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
The Tigers will host Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (5-4) in a 7 p.m. Friday Class 2A first-round playoff contest.
Jordan Barney was the overlooked Tiger against G-RF. On the night teammate Caleb Pratt broke the state's all-time rushing record, Barney accumulated 102 yards (64 on three receptions), had seven tackles and intercepted a pass.
"He ran the ball hard and was tough to bring down," Goodlove said. "Defensively, he recognizes formations and different shifts and made correct reads."
Teammates Dusty Zaayer (11 tackles), Austin Gay (seven tackles), Aaron Johnson (one interception) and Kasey Verhoeven (one interception) were other mainstays against the Buffaloes.
The Comets (5-4) have managed to average 4.2 yards per rush this season despite an inexperienced offensive line and even though 10 different squad members have carried the ball.
"All of the linemen have done well," coach Gary Denhart said. "I've been impressed with the whole unit."
Converted fullback Corey Pankow has started the last two games at guard, and junior Stephen Kuchefski is a first-year varsity starter at tackle. Center Jaycen Herndon has been a steadying influence as the team's veteran.
Defensively, Denhart lauded the play of tackle Garrett Fourez in last week's game against Salt Fork.
O/A-P will travel to Petersburg on Friday to tackle fourth-ranked Porta (9-0) in an opening-round Class 3A playoff game.
"They are a big, powerful team, but we've played teams like that in Westville and Clifton," Denhart said. "Those are teams that come at you, and they will be the same."
The season's end was "bittersweet," coach Jason Bacca-dutre said.
"In weeks 8 and 9, we played our two best games," Baccadutre said. "To get the overtime victory (Week 8 against Bismarck-Henning) is a very big positive.
"We had a lot of inexperience this year, and it took time, too much time, to figure things out. We didn't start to figure things out until Week 8, and by then the season was about over and we couldn't do much about it."
Though the Buffaloes dropped a 43-14 decision to Westville last Friday, Baccadutre said "for a half we played with them (trailing 20-7), but eventually the talent took over."
Chase Vire passed for 165 yards and Aaron Williams rushed for 64 yards against the Tigers. Brandon O'Hair had 95 yards receiving to finish as the team leader for the season.