Season wrap-up: Zehner: Culver’s 7 wins exceeded expectations
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Already trailing 14-0 in the first quarter, the Culver football team was beginning to think they were getting some momentum against host North Judson in the Class 1A, Sectional 41 final last week.
But Culver running back Shane Shuman fumbled, and North Judson’s Gabe Ellis recovered and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown.
It was one of four Cavalier turnovers for the game.
The Blue Jays went on to win 54-0 to claim their third sectional title in four years and their 10th straight win over Culver overall.
“I think that might have been the turning point of the game,” Culver coach Mike Zehner said of the fumble return. “I felt like we did a few good things there early on. Even the dropped pass – we had a receiver wide open on kind of like a halfback pass and obviously didn’t catch it. That hurt us. Those are the things you look back on.
“In those big games against great opponents like North Judson, we’ve got to have everything possible that we can go right and hope for mistakes on their part, but we didn’t make enough plays when it comes down to it.”
Culver finished 7-5 for their fourth winning season in Zehner’s seven seasons as coach. They had wins over Winamac and Pioneer, two teams that beat them last year. In fact, the win over Pioneer was their first ever over the Panthers.
Culver’s losses were to teams that went a combined 37-9, and three of the losses – North Judson twice and Knox – came to sectional champions.
Zehner was asked if the team exceeded his own expectations.
“No doubt,” Zehner said. “I think looking back on this year, going into it, losing the amount of seniors we did last year… obviously, when you’ve got Shane Shuman, you’ve got a chance. I thought our line was probably the guys that exceeded my expectations the most. When you lose Auston Zehner and Alex Zehner and Hunter Taylor and some of those guys, they were a big part of our offensive line for a couple years, Auston being three years as a center.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get, and Steven Pugh, Devin Burkett, Ben Lee and Tre Blankenship, those guys stepped up tremendously for us. Steven Pugh was probably one of the best leaders we’ve had up front. … I think Devin and Ben, we kind of expected them to secure the strong side of our line. Oliver Morgan was probably one of our biggest surprises. I think weight room-wise and just his leadership role. He really was the team captain and loved everything he did. Defensively, he really played our weak side outside. He did a nice job. Even last Friday, I felt like he probably played his best game.”
Players who will return next season who got considerable time include Ethan Binion and Braiden Molebash. Jonas McCuen will be a sophomore next year and figures to take over for the graduating Jason Cadle at quarterback. He already starts at safety on defense.
“He has a spectacular arm,” Zehner said. “He may have one of the best arms I’ve ever been around at the quarterback position. He will step right into that role and do a great job there. His twin brother Caleb, I look for him to get a lot more playing time next year. … Ryan Beem was a nice athlete at our slot position, and I expect him to do some big things offensively. He ran some jet sweeps. He’s a very good athlete. Brady Kindernay is another one that will step up. Hayden Parker has been probably our best corner that we’ve had this year. … He’s done some awesome things. … But he’ll be a senior, and we’re going to rely a lot on those guys’ leadership. Our offensive line is going to be a question mark with the amount of guys we lose. So we’ll see what that looks like next year. I know we’ve got a lot of incoming freshmen that we’re excited about.
“Numbers were down this year. Hopefully, the success sparked some kids to say, ‘Maybe I should get off my butt and do something and be a part of something bigger than just going home.’”