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Ben Smith

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There was no shame in losing this one

– It ended for them over on the far sideline, with a kid named Brandon Lee busting it toward the end zone with stolen goods as everyone in Lawrence Central maroon sent a delirious howl spiraling up into the Lucas Oil Stadium ironwork.

One last mistake, on a night when mistakes would cost dearer than most. One last shot at one last miracle – and, really, with their résumé, did anyone think these Snider Panthers were completely finished, until this moment with 1:34 to play? – getting turned inside out and upside down.

And so here was Lee, headed 55 yards toward the end zone with the pick six that would finally turn out the lights on the Fort Wayne kids.

And here was the Lawrence Central side of the scoreboard, going from 32 points to an unreachable 39 in the Class 5A state football title game.

And here at the 25-yard line, watching the score go to 39-14 against him with his arms folded and his face entirely too smooth for what must have been churning inside him.

Well. Here was Kurt Tippmann, keeper of the flame. And, listen, he’d cut out his tongue before he admitted that’s what he was, because there’s a certain way of doing things where he coaches football, and that just isn’t it.

Instead, it’s about the program and the kids who own that program, not the coaches who don’t. Every Snider football team, longtime coach Russ Isaacs always said, ultimately rests in the hands of its seniors. And now here they were back on the big stage for the first time in eight years, and one of his protégés was saying exactly the same thing.

“I’m just happy for our seniors,” he said. “What they’ve done this year is a great credit to them. It’s what we want every kid to leave the program to be like.

“Any time in high school, the kids rotate in and rotate out and we just hope that every group that comes through here has an opportunity to win championships.”

And, OK, so that didn’t happen, this time. Lawrence Central was simply too fast and too skilled all over the field, and if the Panthers hang with the Bears for a while, eventually it simply slid away from them.

A 64-yard touchdown run here. A 49-yard pass over the top there. A dash of Isaiah Townsend … a pinch of Drake Christen … and four Snider turnovers, every one of them seeming to happen just when the Panthers were on the verge of shifting the momentum from Lawrence Central’s plate to theirs.

The skinny, after all that: The Bears were simply too good. And no shame in that for the Panthers, whose DNA this season was equal parts grit and skill and who carried that DNA to the end.

“We knew we would fight,” said Tippmann, whose team’s signature moment this fall was the miracle rally from two touchdowns behind with two minutes to play to beat Fishers in the regional. “That’s emblematic of the character of our kids. High school sports is about kids learning that they have that in them. What’s great is to see that come forth and to see them show that kind of grit and character.”

And so of course he wasn’t going to talk about his own satisfaction, only theirs. Even if, loss or not, there had to be some, considering everything.

“It’s been awhile,” Tippmann admitted. “This is a hard deal. It’s a hard deal to get here. The kids work every year tremendously hard. You can’t be in our program and not work hard. And so every kid that comes through puts forth every effort to accomplish those goals. And it’s just a hard deal.”

Some nights harder than others.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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