110 points later, North football clinches first sectional title since 2000

Kyle Sokeland
Evansville Courier & Press

NEWBURGH, Ind. — The numbers to come from this game will make your head spin.

Over 1,100 yards of offense. A third quarter lasting roughly 50 minutes with seven combined touchdowns and multiple turnovers. What transpired on Friday night at John Lidy Field was as breathtaking as it was absurd, likely depending on how you prefer to win a football game.

The only number on the mind of North football? Twenty-three. Because this moment was that many years in the making. One which fully establishes where the program is after years of hoping.

More:Evansville-area high school football scores for sectional championships

North’s Jason Rucker (1) pulls away from Castle defense as the North Huskies play the Castle Knights during the IHSAA Class 5A Sectional 16 championship game in Newburgh, Ind., Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.

North defeated Castle 60-50 to win its first sectional championship since 2000. A wild display that turned a tie game at halftime into a three-hour-plus marathon. The rest of the state watched bewilderedly as the final game concluded in Indiana.

“Never been part of a 60-50 ball game before,” said North coach Joey Paridaen. “Hopefully for my heart, it never has to happen again. I don’t know what the stat line is going to be, but it’s something ridiculous.”

Where to even begin?

The first half featured pedestrian numbers – six touchdowns, four turnovers, a blocked punt and a failed onside kick – compared to what followed. North scored twice in the first five minutes yet trailed following the first play of the third quarter. The program potentially withers in any other year.

What transpired next changed the game. The Huskies (8-3) scored five times in the next nine minutes of game clock. Jason Rucker found the end zone three times including runs of 50 and 70 yards. Cainen Northington ripped off an 82-yarder. Sam McKinney found James Mercer for the second time through the air.

North 53, Castle 35 after three quarters. It was 21-21 at halftime.

“We came out last year a little soft,” Northington said of a sectional final loss to Castle. “We wanted to show them what’s up. If it wasn’t for Ruck, I wouldn’t have played as well today. He was picking me up in my bad games. I’m picking him up. It’s out of love.”

Why the sudden burst of offense? That’s easy. The Huskies (8-3) controlled the line of scrimmage, unofficially finishing with 506 rushing yards. It didn’t matter who had the ball. It didn't matter which direction the play went. North couldn’t be stopped.

Rucker will earn deserved praise for his night. The junior had 294 yards on only 14 carries and four touchdowns. It wasn’t just him burning the Castle defense. Northington had 132 yards on 10 touches. Sam McKinney added 66 yards and two rushing scores.

The true stars were the offensive line. Several of them play on both sides. A dominant offensive team effort.

“We wanted it more,” said Rucker. “I give all credit to the o-line. Give it all to (them). I did what I’m supposed to do as a running back. Look what happened. We produced. This is what we wanted since day one."

North’s Cainen Northington (22) runs the ball after receiving a pass as the North Huskies play the Castle Knights during the IHSAA Class 5A Sectional 16 championship game in Newburgh, Ind., Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.

The Knights (7-4) somehow still had an opportunity to tie or win. Carter Bobe caught a diving touchdown following a tipped pass with 8:35 left. Castle had the ball down 10 with under six minutes left and driving.

One fourth down stop followed by a McKinney 33-yard touchdown sealed the game. Remember the Huskies needed a last-minute touchdown to beat this same team in a low-scoring week one victory.

“You have to start with our guys up front,” said Paridaen. “They’ve been our glue the entire year. (Castle) is a talented team and hard to stop them completely. We were able to make enough plays to win. That’s all that matters at this point.”

This result was cathartic for those on the visiting sideline. A sea of green rushed the field once the trophy was lifted. An understandable reaction considering the wilderness the program had traversed. It wasn't just zero sectional championships since 2000. There was a stretch where North won only a single postseason game in 14 years.

North’s Kasey Hospelhorn (25) is celebrated by North’s Kaleb Harris (7) after recovering a fumble as the North Huskies play the Castle Knights during the IHSAA Class 5A Sectional 16 championship game in Newburgh, Ind., Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.

It became a running thought: when would this program take the next step? It happened in year six for Paridaen. There were tests along the way, especially three straight five-win seasons. But this moment was why he came to North after leading Eastern Greene to the state championship game in 2017.

Call it hopeful thinking or blind faith at times, but Paridaen always saw the potential in his team. It delivered with its first trip to the regional in 23 years and a visit to No. 3 Bloomington South (10-1). And if the North team from the past two weeks shows up, don’t count it out.

But the Huskies are undeniably celebrating this moment first. It’s been 23 years.

“It felt like we were stuck on that hump for the longest time,” said Paridaen. “5-5 is nothing to bat your eyes at. We don’t want to stop here. We feel like we have a talented enough team here to make a deep run. Credit to our seniors and coaching staff, all of the people in the program for making this become a reality.”

Follow Courier & Press sports reporter Kyle Sokeland on X (formerly Twitter) @kylesokeland.