LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. -- Austin Bowling was out for lunch with his mom Monday afternoon at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lawrenceburg when he got a little taste of the excitement in the community over the Tigers football team.
Bowling, a senior running back for the Tigers and an Indiana Mr. Football hopeful, was surprised when a fan offered to pay for his meal just because he was on the team.
“He knew who I was," Bowling said. "It was a great experience.”
Things have been that way for Lawrenceburg football players since Bowling and the Tigers (13-1) beat Brownstown Central 41-40 Nov. 18 at home in the Class 3-A state championship semifinals. They’ll play in Saturday’s state final against Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran (12-2) at 3:30 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“It’s been crazy,” Bowling said. “A lot of people really look up to us and look up to the football team. We’re really making them proud. There is a lot of stuff in the community, a lot of banners going up. This experience is amazing. Every day there is someone or something telling us to go win it.”
Banners bedeck local business facades, Dick Meador Stadium in Lawrenceburg and the hallways and doors at the high school. The whole town is buzzing with excitement for the first state finals berth since 1985.
“The whole town is kind of erupting really,” senior quarterback Reid Strobl said. “It’s pretty cool. Doors are painted, at the school the windows are painted. In our town, everyone is really excited.”
Sixth-year Tigers coach and 1996 Lawrenceburg graduate Ryan Knigga has been immersed in that same excitement since his phone started buzzing Friday night.
“My phone Friday night seemed like it was a slot machine, just beeping and beeping and beeping and beeping with the messages and the emails that we’ve gotten,” Knigga said. “You put together a state championship game T-shirt and you sell over 700 of them (Monday). The support in our community for Tiger football has always been first-class and second to none. We’re proud of that.”
Knigga really started to see the excitement during the Brownstown game when Lawrenceburg faithful packed Dick Meador Stadium for the first semi-state game held in Lawrenceburg since 1984. The school had to bring in extra bleachers for the game.
“The first thing that you notice is how many people in Lawrenceburg actually really love Tiger football and how many people support Tiger football, whether they’re behind the scenes, in the stands, in the classroom or if they own a business here,” Knigga said.
Knigga knew his community would expect a lot from an alumnus coach when he took over in 2011, but high expectations and challenges were not a turn-off. Now he has a tight-knit team with guys who have played together throughout their youth, some even since kindergarten. Youth programs are up and rolling, and Knigga said kids have bought into what they’re doing.
“We’re a very close group of guys, as well as having a lot of talent with Austin Bowling as our running back and our line has played outstanding this year,” Strobl said. “Those guys are playing at the top of their game right now.
“We’ve been together through a lot.”
Bowling has scored 52 touchdowns this season for a powerful Lawrenceburg offense and became the ninth running back in Indiana history to run for 3,000 yards in a season. Strobl has passed for more than 2,000 yards and a school record 28 touchdowns this season. Strobl’s favorite targets are seniors Jordan Houze and Ben Murphy, each with more than 30 catches.
The state final was never a far-fetched idea for this group of players.
“We definitely believed we could make it all the way,” Bowling said. “This team is full of a bunch of guys that are hard-working and want to get the job done. Since we started summer workouts, we always broke on, ‘State on three.’ We really lived up to it. We pushed each other the greatest amount and that’s what got us here. I don’t think there is anyone around here that is more of a team than Lawrenceburg."
Concordia Lutheran is the last hurdle for this group of players, and slowing down that Cadets’ offense and quarterback Peter Morrison will be the biggest task.
“They’ve got a great quarterback,” Knigga said. “He’s thrown almost 45 touchdown passes and five interceptions. They have a receiver over 1,000 yards with 20-some touchdowns, and they have a running back who has been hurt most of the season and he’s back now. The line is big and they don’t give up sacks. It’s hard to get to the quarterback.
"Offensively, I think we’ll be able to move the ball. It will be a game where a lot of points are scored. That’s not a knock against anybody’s defense. I just think both of our offenses are really good.”