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1973 Panthers Had Character, and Were Characters; Flaw in State's Qualifying System Kept One of Greatest KHS Teams Out of Playoffs
July 23, 2008 - Varsity football teams from Knightstown High School have a rich history of success when it comes to playoff football. But 35 years ago next month, longtime coach Don Willard put a team on the field that might have been the best ever, and never had the opportunity to show it.
Starting with the 1973 season, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) introduced a first-ever playoff format for high school football teams. The state’s more than 700 schools were divided into three classes based on enrollment of boys in the top four grades. Knightstown was placed into Class A, along with 250 other schools.
A limited number of teams would qualify for the playoffs based upon their record and the size of the schools on their schedule. The classes were then divided into districts, and Knightstown was placed in District 10 with 33 other schools. Just one of those teams would qualify for postseason play.
The IHSAA utilized a scoring system in which school received three points for each win over another Class A school, four points for a win over a 2A team, and five points for a win over a 3A school.
Based on today’s five-class system, Knightstown would have easily won its district. The Panther schedule back then would have included two 3A and three 2A schools in the five-class arrangement. But in 1973, every team on the Panthers’ schedule was a Class A school. Four of the Knightstown opponents were close to the cutoff between 2A and 1A. The Panthers went 9-1 that year, accumulating 27 points for those wins.
In 1973, they could have gone unbeaten, garnering the maximum 30 points, and still would not have made the playoffs.
Union City finished with 33 points and Woodlan had 31. Both had some weak Class 2A teams on their schedule, and both beat them.
“There were several unbeaten teams in the state that didn’t make the playoffs that year,” said Willard, who is “Retired, if you can call it that.” The Knightstown football coach for 39 years quickly says that the 1973 team was undoubtedly his best defensive team, but the contribution those players made also transcended the Panther football program. They essentially gave birth to the well-known Knightstown football tradition that exists today.
“That team kind of turned things around for us,” Willard said. “There were a lot of characters on that team as well, and I told someone just the other day that I believe you have to have some characters.
“John Strader was a great football player, but he was a character too. He just had a knack for getting to the football. But he was a great kid. He would knock people all over the field, but after the game he was just a super kid.
“I remember I was watching television one night and in 1974 there were a lot of things going on at college campuses,” Willard said. “There were various protests and issues, and I saw a kid standing on top of a car or platform leading a protest at Ball State. It was Strader.”
After coaching Panther football from 1967 to 2005, Willard retired, but only from teaching. Last year he coached the seventh grade football team at Greenfield, and this year he will lead the eighth grade team. He’s coaching one of his grandsons. Willard has 11 grandchildren, all boys, and all are, or will be, football players. They range from seven years old to the oldest, a sophomore.
“Not getting into the playoffs that year was a disappointment because the team was just so good,” Willard said. “They were a heck-of-a lot of fun to coach.” The one consolation Knightstown got from missing the playoffs was that they prevented no fewer than four teams from gaining a post-season bid by beating them during the season.
Despite have a schedule that was composed entirely of Class A schools, Knightstown’s football schedule in 1973 was actually very brutal. Multiple larger schools made up the bulk of the schedule, including Mt. Vernon, Triton Central, New Palestine and Monrovia. There were also the always competitive Big Blue River Conference teams to worry about, including North Decatur, Eastern Hancock and Tri High, as well as very successful programs at Hagerstown and Centerville.
But the Panthers had 16 seniors and starters returning at 17 positions from the previous season, in which the team went 7-2. Headlining the group was all-state lineman Strader, probably the greatest defensive lineman in the school’s history.
“Knightstown’s 1973 team had John Strader and that’s a big part of what separated that team from any since,” said resident Randy Plank, a 1975 KHS graduate and two-way starter on the 1973 team. “He was just on a different level. He was a huge guy but I can remember seeing him run down guys from behind … sometimes from all the way across the field.”
Today, Plank still lives in Knightstown and is retired from Ford Motor Company. He can usually be spotted at all of the Knightstown football games.
The Panther defense had six all-conference players in 1973, and that talent was apparent early in the season. Knightstown outscored its opposition 275-43 on the year, amassing 2,825 yards of offense and allowing a grand total of 823 yards in the 10 games.
The team averaged gaining 200 yards more per game than its opponents, despite being penalized for 797 yards on the season. The Panthers nearly had as many penalty yards against them as they allowed opponents to gain every game.
Defense was the team’s strength. Strader was joined by defensive end Eugene Litten, who was a punishing tackler and a quarterback’s worst nightmare on the blitz. Whichever side Litten lined up on, teams usually rolled their quarterback in the opposite direction. Litten and Strader combined for 27 sacks on the season, and Litten missed the last three games due to an injury.
Darl Nigh, Bill Magee, Doug Plank, Randy Plank, Trent Pitcher, Brent Magee, Jon Easton, Joe Beavers, Vic Keesling and Bob Sitler combined to secure six shutouts in 10 games. The Panthers allowed just six touchdowns all season and shut out five of their last six opponents. Tri High managed to score one time during a 43-6 blowout for the only points Knightstown gave up over a span of 28 quarters.
Offensively, the team ran an effective option with quarterback J.B. Vogle, all-state fullback Tony Butcher, and speedsters Mike Todd, Mick Kiser and Jon Easton. When the team wanted to throw the ball, sophomore Galen Thomas was inserted into the game and almost always delivered, usually to Kiser or Randy Plank.
“Butcher is still today the best fullback I’ve ever seen,” Plank said. “He was just unbelievable and just knocked people over.”
All of the Panther running backs averaged around five yards per carry, and Butcher averaged nearly eight per attempt. The offensive line was anchored by center John Ottinger, who at just 170 pounds, was out-weighed by anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds by his opponent every game. But with Beavers, Wilson, Nigh and Sitler on the offensive line, opponents knew the Panthers would run, but could do nothing to stop them.
The team had a five-game stretch in the middle of the season in which they outscored the opposition 140-6. On the entire season, Knightstown allowed just six points in the second quarter and none in the third. Most of the 43 points the team allowed came during fourth quarter mop-up time.
The team won its season opener over Shenandoah 37-12 after spotting the Raiders a 6-0 lead on a broken play, 71-yard touchdown run. The Raiders got their other score late in the fourth quarter on a 70-yard run. Despite 141 yards rushing on those two runs, the Raiders finished the game with just 74 yards of total offense.
At the time, it was the biggest loss in school history. By losing to Mt. Vernon in the second game of the season, 12-9, Knightstown secured its own fate in the playoff chase because District 10 was considered by far the toughest in Class A. No newer than seven teams were given a great chance of going unbeaten, including the Panthers.
Knightstown had a 9-0 lead after a touchdown by Butcher and a 30-yard field goal by Doug Plank. Then the Marauders scored two late touchdowns to steal the game.
It was 4th-and-13 from the Knightstown 33 when the Mt. Vernon quarterback scrambled to avoid a blitz and hit a short pass to a running back, who eluded several tacklers and scored on the play.
Then, in the waning moments of the game, the Marauders sent every man on a Panther punt and blocked the kick, recovering the ball at the Knightstown 15 yard line. They scored six plays later and stole the 12-9 win.
“I remember that series of plays very well,” Willard said. “We punted the ball and pinned them deep, but that was called back on a penalty. The second punt they sent everyone and blocked it, and that set them up for a pretty easy score.”
That loss proved to be a bitter taste for the Panthers, and upcoming opponents would pay a heavy price. North Decatur was bombed the next week 55-0, and New Palestine, unbeaten at the time, fell to the Panthers 20-13 primarily because Strader had 16 solo tackles, 11 assisted tackles and caused two fumbles. That loss also brought an end to any playoff aspirations the Dragons had.
Despite turning the ball over numerous times, Knightstown then shut down rival Eastern Hancock 25-0, out-gaining them 366-68 in total yardage.
Monrovia, a long road trip west of Indianapolis, had likely never heard of Knightstown. They were spanked on that Friday night and didn’t care for the butt-whipping in front of the home fans. That showed on the field when they were flagged for numerous unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during the 34-0 Panther win. Knightstown players eventually tired of the late hits and retaliated, resulting in more penalties and the ejection of Randy Plank.
“That was the only game I ever got thrown out of in any sport,” Plank laughed. “But we weren’t a group to take it without giving it back.”
Tri High was shellacked 43-6 the following week, but that’s when the injury bug hit the Panthers hard.
Butcher, with 10 touchdowns and over 600 rushing yards in just five games, suffered a knee injury that ended his high school football career. History suggests that was the game in which the Knightstown-Tri High rivalry entered the category of major.
Some 1973 Panther players remember the game too well, and suggest the Titans intentionally inflicted Butcher’s injury.
“Oh, there’s no doubt about it,” Plank said. “I remember hearing the Tri High players yelling at each other ‘Get Butcher!’ over and over. The injury happened on a hit right at the knees, and every time he had the ball that’s where they were aiming.”
“I really don’t remember hearing anything like that,” Willard said. “I know there have always been people who have thought it happened that way. But I do think that was the era that the Knightstown and Tri High rivalry started to get big.”
Without one of their top weapons on offense, the Panthers were forced to deal with another severe blow the following week.
The next game, against Hagerstown, standout defensive end Eugene Litten went down with a broken collar bone, ending his season.
Hagerstown was held to 43 total yards of offense and one first down, but the Panthers struggled with multiple turnovers and penalties. They won the game anyway, 6-0, and brought an end to Hagerstown’s hopes for a playoff berth.
Centerville and Triton Central were both clinging to playoff berth hopes. Knightstown ended those thoughts with two huge wins. They crushed the Bulldogs’ season with a 34-0 thumping, and then whipped Triton Central 12-0.
Despite not having the All-District stars Litten and Butcher, the Panthers nonetheless filled the gaps and went into the final three games with the attitude of “If they can’t score, we can’t lose.” The last four opponents were held to an average of less than 70 yards of total offense and were shut out as well.
“There has been some really great teams come out of Knightstown High School,” Plank said. “But that was the best defensive team in school history, without a doubt. There were only two guys who started on offense and defense, and that was myself and J.B. Vogle. We just wore people out and when the game was over, they weren’t going to forget who they had just played for a long time.”
Despite winning their last eight games, finishing the season with a 9-1 record and being in the top five of the Associated Press and Coaches’ Association Class A football polls, the team failed to make the playoffs.
“That was the system they had set up at the time,” Willard said. “I would have loved to see what that team would have done had the playoffs included everyone, like they do today.”
The 1973 Roster included (seniors) Bruce Wilson, Bob Lines, Jim Thomas, Mike Todd, Bill Magee, John Ottinger, Jeff Schweitzer, J.B. Vogle, John Strader, Charles Conley, Eugene Litten, Jeff Sorrell, Tony Butcher, Bob Sitler, Joe Beavers, Darl Nigh, and (Underclassmen) Brent Magee, Galen Thomas, Mick Kiser, Jon Easton, Randy Plank, Bill Magee, Doug Plank, Gary Litten, Trent Pitcher, Jeff Sorrell, Bud Florea, Perry Gorman, Tim Jackson, Vic Keesling, Bob May, Jeff Brown, Kurt Easton, Mark Todd, Mark Heim, Tim Wright, Bill Miller, Danny Lukens, Clarence Emerson, Greg Firestone, Alan Sanders.
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