NEW CARLISLE — All those in attendance at a sold-out Amzie Miller Field two weeks ago stood on their feet, hands clenched and nervous for a 4th-and-11 play, down three points early in the fourth quarter to Penn.
New Prairie was in control the entire first half, but a one-sided Kingsmen third quarter gave them a 10-7 lead. The Cougars needed to make something happen to keep the game within reach.
Quarterback Chase Ketterer took the snap on the Penn 41-yard line, turned to his right and fired a ball slightly behind him to wide receiver Ian Skornog. Skornog faked running it and dropped back for a pass.
All while this was going on, senior slot receiver Wyatt Kmiecik was doing what he does best. He sprinted down the field, made a defender's hips turn and sprinted down the right sideline. Skornog heaved one up to Kmiecik's vicinity, but the throw was a little short and fell into the Kingsmen corner's hands.
A determined Kmiecik shoved his arms into the defender's body, ripped the ball out into his possession and fell back-first into the end zone for a miraculous, momentum-swinging touchdown to regain the lead for New Prairie. A once-nervous Cougars crowd frenzied in an overjoyed stupor.
Kmiecik's determined score kept New Prairie's chances of upsetting Penn alive. If the Cougars turned the ball over on downs that drive and let up another Kingsmen score, who knows if there would be ample time on the clock to drive down the field and score on two straight possessions. But a Penn touchdown and a last-minute Adam Borror touchdown run gave New Prairie arguably its biggest regular season win in school history, and Kmiecik was at the center of it.
"That (catch) was probably the highlight of my athletic career so far," Kmiecik said. "I mean, that was crazy. Especially since I dropped a wide-open catch the drive before that probably would've been a touchdown."
The play Kmiecik was referring to happened midway through the third quarter with the two teams deadlocked in a 7-7 tie. He was wide open after beating a defender on a double-move and Ketterer saw him. A perfect pass over 40 yards down the field went right through Kmiecik's hands, forcing third down after what looked like a sure-fire touchdown.
But he didn't let that faze him. The two-way player went in on the opposite side of the at defensive back the next possession and channeled some anger.
"I knew I needed to get more into it and make something happen after that," Kmiecik said. "So instead of laying a few yards off the receiver, I got all up on him at the line of scrimmage and pressed him hard. That helped me forget about the catch and just got me more in the zone for the rest of the game."
Kmiecik's anger-fueled, rip-away touchdown grab came the following possession after his defense held Penn to a field goal, and the rest is history. The play that he considers to be the pinnacle of his athletic career thus far didn't seem possible a year ago, though.
Following a sophomore season on junior varsity where he had to step up and play quarterback with Ketterer promoted to the varsity team, Kmiecik contemplated his career in football. As a standout baseball player with hopes of playing in college, he wondered if leaving the gridiron for the diamond full-time would be beneficial.
He talked to coaches from both teams, and they all said the same thing.
"We really encourage our athletes to play as many sports as they can," said associate head football coach Bill Gumm. "Especially with how our weight-training program is. You're always going to be in good enough shape to play whatever sports you want here."
Their encouragements couldn't sway Kmiecik, however, and he decided that quitting football would give him far more time to train for his true passion in baseball. Instead of having football practice after school until 6:30 every day in the fall, he had ample time to lift, run, hit, throw and field every day that season.
Kmiecik's hard work his junior year paid off, cementing him firmly as New Prairie's starting right fielder, where he utilized his speed and arm strength. Not playing football paid off for Kmiecik, but there was always a part of him that knew he wanted to get back into it.
He constantly lifted with the football team in the weight room during the fall, joking around with his former teammates and coaches. They'd talk about the season and tell Kmiecik he should come back and play. All this talking and sitting in the stands on Friday nights got to him, and Kmiecik knew he had to come back for his senior season of football.
"I think being able to solidify his place on the baseball team was definitely a factor in deciding to go back to playing football," said head baseball coach Mark Schellinger, who played both football and baseball in college. "I'm really glad he did. I kept telling him it's all about managing your time well. With us working out with the football team in the offseason, it's not like he'd really be missing out on our offseason program. He's a talented athlete and I knew he could handle both (sports), and be successful at both."
Not playing football gave Kmiecik almost too much time. He hit for an hour or two after school every day while the football team was practicing. While being able to do that right after class was nice and gave him more time to be at home and focus on schoolwork, Kmiecik knew he could easily balance the two sports.
He does so now, even though it means a long, hard schedule of training. Kmiecik often times doesn't get home until 8 or 9 p.m. He'll head straight from football practice over to the hitting facility his family owns and take some swings there for an hour, maybe two. It makes for taxing, grueling days, but he enjoys it, especially with how this year has panned out for the New Prairie football team.
"Man, I'd be pretty sad if I missed out on (playing football) this year," Kmiecik said. "We have a shot to win state, and being a part of that is pretty sweet. I'm really glad I came back."