Week 12 football preview: Bremen’s Dingus, Bennitt to challenge Pioneer’s defense
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Class 2A, Sectional 34 final: Pioneer (10-1) at Bremen (9-2), 7 p.m.
The Pioneer football team has won 11 sectional titles, seven regionals, five semistates and three state titles since 1997.
But all of those accomplishments occurred in Class 1A. Pioneer has never won a Class 2A sectional before, but they have a chance to put a unique trophy in its trophy case if they beat Bremen in the Class 2A, Sectional 34 final at Don Bunge Field Friday.
This is the first meeting between Pioneer and Bremen since 1992 and just the third meeting overall. Bremen won the previous two meetings by a combined score of 101-6 in the 1991 and 1992 state tournaments.
Both of those games were played at Pioneer. This is the first time the Panthers have ever traveled to Bremen.
In many ways, these are two traditional football powers whose paths have rarely crossed.
Bremen began playing football in 1957, which was 22 years before Pioneer began playing. By 1958, Bremen was already successful, going 7-2.
In 1964, Bremen joined the Northern Lakes Conference. In 1965, they had their first undefeated season.
By 1985, the IHSAA had adopted the state tournament format that it has today – an all-in tournament with five classes. That year was also the year Bremen went 0-9, the only winless season in school history.
Bremen would not stay down for long. By 1987, Bremen went 10-2, and they won their first sectional title in school history.
In 1988, they were even better, making it to the Class 1A state championship game before falling to a Sheridan team 59-0 that rivals Pioneer in 2017-18 among the great Class 1A teams in IHSAA history.
As for Bremen, they shrugged off that shellacking they took from Sheridan. They were 4-3 after seven games in 1989 before stringing together seven straight wins and winning the state championship for coach John Kucela. (Kucela has retired from coaching but remains a math teacher at Bremen to this day.)
Bremen beat Pioneer in the 1991 sectional final. That was Mike Johnson’s first year as Pioneer coach. In 1992, they beat Pioneer again in the sectional before eventually losing to Sheridan in the semistate.
After losing to Tippecanoe Valley in the 1993 sectional semifinals, Bremen ascended back to the RCA Dome and won another state title in 1994 under coach Martin Huber. That season included a 27-0 win at Jimtown in the sectional after losing to Jimtown during the regular season.
The season ended with a 38-10 win over Evansville Mater Dei in the state championship game.
While another state championship has been elusive since that time, Bremen has remained successful. Bremen was state runner-up in 1995 and a regional champ in 1997.
Pioneer’s football ascent took a little longer. From 1983-1995, Pioneer never had a winning season. It took Johnson six years to field a winning squad.
But since 1996, they have never had a losing season. In 1997, Pioneer won a state title under Johnson. Pioneer hasn’t lost more than three games in a season since 2002, a streak that will continue this year.
While the Pioneer program began to thrive, Bremen began to struggle. From 1998-2009, Bremen never had consecutive winning seasons or won a sectional. In 2010, Bremen hired coach Bob Holmes, and the Lions went from nine losses in the season before he arrived to nine wins and a sectional title.
While Pioneer thrived in Class 1A the 2010s – six sectionals, four regionals, four semistates and the back-to-back state title teams in 2017-18 – Bremen won six sectionals and two regionals in Class 2A in the 2010s under Holmes and current coach Jordan Leeper.
The Lions were seconds away from advancing to the 2018 Class 2A state finals before losing to Eastbrook 34-33 in the semistate on a last-second field goal.
Bremen slipped to 3-8 last season but have rebounded to go 9-2 and achieve the No. 13 ranking this year.
Blake Dingus ran for 154 yards and three touchdowns last week. He’s had eight 100-yard games in 11 games this season.
Pioneer coach Adam Berry said Dingus is the biggest running back the Panthers have faced this year, and Berry compared Dingus to New Haven quarterback Jakar Williams, who Pioneer faced back on Sept. 4.
“You have to get more than one guy to the ball,” Berry said. “If we try to tackle him high, he’s going to get his four, five, six yards a carry that he’s looking to get. So we’re going to have to get multiple guys to the ball and tackle low.”
Bremen also excels on defense. Only Mishawaka Marian, who is undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Class 3A, has scored more than 14 points on the Lions.
One of Wabash’s two touchdowns last week came on a kickoff return. And by then, Bremen was already ahead 35-0.
“Their two losses on the year (Mishawaka Marian and Jimtown) are playing for a 3A sectional championship this Friday,” Berry said. “Their d-line is big. They’re going to look to take up the offensive linemen, so their three linebackers can find gaps and run through and make plays. Their linebackers are, I think, the focus of their defense. If we let them run around untouched, it’s going to be a long night for our offense.”
If Pioneer can handle Bremen, they will claim that first 2A sectional title ever. They have used last year’s two losses to Lewis Cass as motivation, according to Berry.
“In the spring, the pandemic happens, and we couldn’t really talk about that too much in the offseason,” Berry said. “But they’ve had a great career playing together since third grade really. They’re just wanting to get out of the shadows of what the ‘17 and ‘18 teams did. Even though a lot of them played big roles on those teams, they weren’t the focus.
“They’re trying to prove that they can do some damage in the postseason as well. And, you know, this is the first time Pioneer has ever played for a 2A sectional championship. So we’re trying to make history. This group is trying to make history in a program that has been pretty darn successful the last 25 years.”
The winner of this game will play the winner of the Sectional 33 final between Rensselaer and Andrean. If Pioneer beats Bremen, they would host the regional on Nov. 13.