MISHAWAKA – It was a back and forth contest as Warsaw travelled to take on undefeated Mishawaka Friday night. The close game was decided late, with Warsaw freshman Mason Smithe kicking a late fourth quarter field goal to knock off the 5A No. 4 Cavemen 17-15 in Northern Lakes Conference football Friday night.

It was a successful homecoming of sorts for Tiger head coach Bart Curtis, who posted a 90-35 record as Mishawaka’s head coach from 2008 to 2017.

“I think they have some of the best coaches in the state of Indiana along with mine. They’re a good football team,” Curtis said. “It’s a place that I’m really excited to say my kids graduated from and it was my home for ten wonderful years.”

The Tigers made their presence felt early on in this one. On the first official play of the game, Warsaw’s defensive line forced a fumble, which was recovered by junior Jonney Burritt and taken eight yards into the end zone to start off the scoring just over thirty seconds into the game.

After an ensuing defensive stop, Warsaw picked up right where it left off. A 55-yard touchdown drive was put together by the Tiger offense, highlighted by junior fullback German Ortega, who had 44 yards on the drive, including a one-yard TD run to finish it off, his fifth of the season. Warsaw was rolling, up 14-0 less than six minutes into the game. Ortega finished his day with 114 yards on 24 carries and a TD.

It looked to be a game the Tigers would run away with, but the Cavemen answered in a big way. The ensuing kickoff resulted in a Warsaw special teams blunder, allowing a 61-yard return that gave Mishawaka the ball deep in Warsaw territory. It didn’t take long for the Cavemen to capitalize, as sophomore quarterback Brady Fisher dove in from the one-yard-line to put Mishawaka on the board, and then once again for a two-point conversion.

After the hot start to begin the game, Warsaw’s offense stalled for the remainder of the half. The Cavemen would get the first and only score of the second quarter with a little over two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the half off of a Chase Gooden six-yard run. Mishawaka took a 15-14 lead into the locker room.

The special teams hurt the Tigers all night long, whether it was allowing long returns or doing a poor job of pinning the Cavemen offense back. A 14-yard punt after Warsaw’s first possession of the second half gave Mishawaka another prime opportunity to strike. It looked as if the Cavemen would, but on the second fourth-down conversion attempt of the drive, Trey Koontz came up with a big tackle, keeping it a one-point game. The two teams headed to the fourth quarter, with Warsaw failing to pick up a first down in the third.

“Sometimes our team handles adversity far better than they handle prosperity,” Curtis said. “I think tonight our offense didn’t handle prosperity very well. I asked them in the second half ‘are we going to keep fighting, make our own breaks, or are we going to fold?’”

Warsaw got some momentum to begin the fourth quarter, coming up clutch on a key fourth down stop. But the momentum was quickly lifted away, as a Tucker Curtis pass went through the hands of his receiver and into the grasp of a Caveman cornerback. But as with every other Tiger miscue in the second half, the defense was there to back them up. Another fourth down stop put the ball back in Warsaw’s hands. Curtis finished the game 1-3 passing for 19 yards and an interception, and also added 32 yards on the ground.

With a little over four minutes left, the Tigers went for one final push. After struggling on offense since the end of the first quarter, Warsaw got its first first-down of the second half on a 52-yard run by Julius Jones to get the ball inside the Mishawaka ten-yard-line. Warsaw was able to get the ball to the two, before electing to kick a 20-yard field goal. The kick by Smithe was good, giving the Tigers a 17-15 lead with just over two minutes to play.

“You gotta keep telling your kids we’re one play away. One play away,” Curtis said. “Gotta make something happen. There was much discussion about what to do, I didn’t want to walk away losing this game 15-14 with a kid that could kick it through the uprights. We had not been good on fourth down.”

The defense had to make one more stop. After a personal foul appeared to set Mishawaka up nicely at the Warsaw 33, a holding penalty brought the offense back, and the Tigers were able to hold on from there. After a pass on 4th and 17 fell incomplete, Tiger linebackers threw their fists in the air. They held the undefeated Cavemen scoreless in the second half. Nothing left to do but take a knee.

“I can’t say enough about the job our kids did tonight,” Curtis said. “This was a hell of a high school game. If we lost 15-14 I’d still say this was a hell of a high school game. I might not be smiling though.”

Warsaw plays its next game Friday night against Northridge.