Mention Northwest Indiana to Wabash coach Erik Raeburn and he might invite himself over for dinner.
“All I can say is we’ve been really, really fortunate with all the kids we’ve recruited from the region,” Raeburn said. “They have all played really well for us. I can’t think of one kid who hasn’t contributed in a positive way for us.”
When you’re 7-0 on the season and rolling over opponents from week to week, it’s nice to know kids who call the area home have adjusted quite well at Wabash College in Crawfordsville near Lafayette, home of the Little Giants.
The men's liberal arts college is ranked No. 14 in the NCAA Division III football poll, averaging 49 points a game and allowing just 8.1. The offense is running for 268 yards a contest and giving up just 61, and total offense per game weighs heavily in Wabash’s favor, 429-218. The Little Giants compete in the North Coast Athletic Conference.
“We’ve done so well despite the injuries,” said Raeburn, who lost Andrean sophomore Mason Zurek, the team’s leading rusher, to a horrific injury two weeks ago. “He was running great, too. It happened during a tackle. He broke his leg, dislocated his ankle. He had to have surgery. We’re hoping he’s ready for next season.”
Wabash is actually starting Grant Klembara – seventh on the depth chart going into the season – at running back.
“We’re hanging in there,” Raeburn said. “We’ve had some key injuries, plus a lot of personal stuff this year. I think we’ve had five guys lose a grandparent since camp started. You always have things happen, but it’s been unusually high this year.”
One player doing big things for the Little Giants is Homewood-Flossmoor’s Denzel Wilkins, a junior defensive back. He’s started since his freshman year and plays the team’s toughest position, according to Raeburn. He serves in every capacity from a nickel position where he plays a mix of cornerback, safety and linebacker. He has 19 tackles and two interceptions this season.
“He is one of the best players in our conference; I’d say one of the best players in the country, period,” Raeburn said. “He was injured last year and played in only six of 10 games. In the games he played we had four shutouts and only gave up a safety in another. That’s how important he is to our defense.”
Another area star is Chesterton’s Nathan Brock, who starts at center. The junior is a two-year starter.
“Nathan was really heavy last year and we challenged him to lose some weight and be an elite player in our conference,” Raeburn said. “He lost 75 pounds to self discipline. He’s still big, but he’s more athletic and he’s gotten quicker with his feet.”
Crown Point’s Zach Breuckman is a senior who anchors the defensive line and is a three-year starter.
“Zach’s our biggest and most physical player on defense,” Raeburn said. “He takes up so many blockers. He’s not a stat guy, but you can ask our linebackers how much they love him.”
Elsewhere, Michigan City’s Alex Hirsch is the team’s long snapper and a backup on the offensive line; Jake Thompson (H-F) is a backup center; Jim Walsdorf (Hobart) is rehabbing from a back injury and trying to win back his starting job at tight end.
Austin Althoff (Michigan City) plays on special teams and starts in two and three tight end sets, while cornerback Peter Fouts (Chesterton) starts on special teams and also has an interception. Senior Josh Wright (Crown Point/Culver Military) plays wide receiver and sophomore Drew Breuckman, Zach’s brother, has seen some varsity reps at outside linebacker.
Two players Raeburn gushes about are freshmen Austin Brown (Griffith/safety) and E.C. Central’s Jalen Alston (E.C. Central/defensive line).
“Austin came in as a quarterback, but we felt he was too good of an athlete not to help right now,” Raeburn said. “It literally took three days of practice to see he could be really good.”
Brown, who starts on special teams and plays safety on passing downs, had his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 27-10 victory over Oberlin. Brown, a standout quarterback at Griffith, was third on the depth chart at QB going into spring ball, but knew he could get on the field quicker on defense and took advantage of the opportunity.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I got here, but it’s been awesome,” Brown said. “I’m happy with the season, the coaches, and my playing time. I knew it would be a longer wait on offense and I could help immediately on defense.”
As for E.C. Central’s Alston, he’s a diamond in the rough, according to the Wabash coach.
“He slipped through some cracks (in recruitment), but we’re more than happy to have him,” Raeburn said. “If he spends some more time in the weight room, the sky’s the limit for him. We think he could totally dominant at this level when he’s a junior and senior.”