MERRILLVILLE | It was Wheeler against the world Friday at Fr. Vincent Eckert Field.
The world lost.
The underdog Bearcats, taking advantage of a whopping eight Andrean turnovers, stunned the Class 2A second-ranked 59ers 12-7 in an improbable Sectional 25 shocker.
"Defense is our strong suit. Defense wins championships," Wheeler's Jake Gore said. "I'm ecstatic. We've overcome adversity since we were sophomores. We knew we had to put our heart into it and do our thing. Nobody came into the game thinking we were going to lose. It's the best feeling in the world."
Gore clinched the outcome, intercepting a Matt DeSomer pass intended for Ramon Guerrero at the Andrean 5 with 1:11 left. It was Gore's second pick of the game. Adam Abrell, who also recovered one of Andrean's five lost fumbles, took an errant DeSomer pass back 9 yards for the go-ahead score with 5:30 left in the third quarter.
"I didn't even see it coming. The ball just landed in my arms," Abrell said. "I didn't think it was going to make it to the end zone. I just put my head down and dove. It was the most fun game I've ever played in in my entire life."
Wheeler (10-0) prevailed despite 20 yards of total offense. Yes, 20. It had minus-18 yards in the second half and not a single first down.
"I can't say how well our defense played," Bearcats coach Dan Klimczak said. "A lot of those turnovers were forced. They never really got established on the ground and that's a credit to how physical our defense played. It's the most physical I've ever seen a (Wheeler) team play. They really brought it. For us to be successful, big-time players had to make big-time plays. That's what Jake did and that's what Adam did. They're two seniors who have been starting for a long time and I can't tell you how proud I am."
The Bearcats went in front 6-0 on a 6-yard Robert Hurd pass to a diving Gore in the first quarter. That came after a Mason Zurek fumble popped right into the hands of Derek Hartwig at the 12.
Andrean (9-1) put together its only scoring drive in the second quarter, going 80 yards on 12 plays, with DeSomer hooking up with Zurek from 10 yards out.
The 59ers dwarfed Wheeler in yardage with 249, but never seriously threatened to score again.
"We stopped a couple drives and that built our confidence," Klimczak said. "Very few people gave us a chance other than the ones wearing white jerseys, and that's all that counts. We talked that this was your chance to show everybody who doubted you how good you are. It doesn't matter what people say. Prove to yourself what you're capable of. Stand up to the challenge. What are your limits? I didn't think they had any. They were willing to meet a tough challenge, individually and collectively. It's pretty special."
Wheeler advances to play Rensselaer, which ended its last two seasons in the sectional finals. Andrean, in turn, sees a postseason it expected to go well into November come to a screeching halt.
"I have no answer for what happened, with what was going on," 59ers coach Phil Mason said. "They're kids, awfully good kids. I'm not going to blame them. It's not their fault. They played hard. They'll learn a great lesson. The hardest thing is I'm not going to be able to go to practice with them on Monday."