This was memorable, impressive and thrilling.
And while back-to-back state titles are always special, and while the Cathedral High School 2021 football team will be remembered as one of the best in the history of a historical program, Head Coach Bill Peebles said something else was equally true.
This took a season-long effort by all involved.
“I didn’t think it was going to be easy – and it wasn’t, for sure,” Peebles said.
The Irish, long one of Indiana’s top football programs, turned in one of the most impressive seasons in school history in 2021 – capping a remarkable two-season run with a 14-1 season that ended with a 34-14 victory over Zionsville in the Class 5A state title game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 25.
The Irish won the ’20 Class 5A title, 46-28, over Zionsville.
“Through the regular season, I didn’t bring it up much at all,” Peebles said of the historical significance of repeating. “Once we hit the playoffs, I did bring it up at the very beginning. I told them, ‘You guys have a chance to do something that’s never been done before.’ ”
The state title was the Irish’s 14th, the second-most in Indiana behind Bishop Chatard’s 15. The Irish won Class 3A state titles in 1986 and 1992; Class 4A titles in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012; and Class 5A titles in 2013, 2015 and 2020.
The Irish went 27-2 in 2020-2021, winning 11 postseason games – all by at least 16 points – and the 40 Irish 2021 seniors went 36-5 record over their last three seasons. Their lone losses in the final two seasons came to Center Grove, which won the Class 6A title both seasons.
Peebles said that tied the school record for victories over a three-year span.
“What these guys did not only in the playoffs but the regular season I think sets them apart,” Peebles said. “The last two years we’ve played an amazing schedule and our kids have done amazingly well.”
The Irish, as they did in all their postseason games, controlled much of the state title game. They took the lead permanently in the second quarter, led 24-7 after three quarters and never trailed by less than 10 in the second half.
“Sometimes when you’re going through the process you don’t see it, but toward the end – the last couple of weeks – we spoke about it enough, that this [level of success] isn’t normal,” Peebles said. “Our guys got it. That helped them appreciate it that final night. This is a group that truly loves each other and enjoys the relationships and camaraderie.
We’ve got a great group of kids who are going to go on to do great things. Some of them are going to play football and some of them are just going to be really successful in life.”
Peebles said the ’21 Irish were led by a strong group of senior captains he called “the gasoline in the engine:” Linebacker Jeffrey Utzinger, linebacker/safety Bryce Llewellyn, lineman Cooper Koers, wide receiver Michael Page and linebacker Hudson Miller.
“The five together had a cumulative GPA of like a 4.3,” Peebles said. “They’re all Ivy League-type kids. It’s a pretty special group on the field and off the field.”
Junior wide receiver Jason Tibbs caught 10 passes for 210 yards against Zionsville. Sophomore quarterback Danny O’Neill completed 25 of 35 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns in the game, also rushing 13 times for 77 yards.
Tibbs caught 66 passes for 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns for the season, with O’Neill passing for 2,956 yards and 33 touchdowns with two interceptions.
“He exceeded my expectations by a longshot and I had high expectations for him,” Peebles said of O’Neill. “He managed games unbelievably well. We do a lot of stuff on the ball, changing plays and pre-snap reads. He may have been the best I’ve ever had at it and he doesn’t even have his driver’s permit yet.
“He’s got a chance to put himself in a different league if he continues on the right trajectory.”
The Irish in 2021 allowed just 9.4 points per game and allowed more than 20 points just twice. They held nine opponents under 10 points and registered four shutouts.
“We knew we’d be good defense, but we didn’t know they’d be as good as they were,” Peebles said. “We had an outstanding defense, maybe one of the best in Cathedral history.”
That defense keyed what Peebles said was one of the ’21 Irish’s defining characteristics: toughness, which along with remarkable camaraderie was critical to success on and off the field.
“This team was a very physical group,” he said. “On the field, they were very physical. Off the field, they very close. When you have 40 seniors, not every senior starts. We had kids who never have started a game who are sticking it out for four years and happy to be a part of it and want to be on the special teams or help in practice and be with their buddies and in the locker room. That kind of sets this team apart – on the field how close they were and off the field how physical they were.”
Peebles added, “Cathedral is so supportive of the kids and this program. I’m blessed to have an unbelievably great coaching staff around me. Everything’s going good here. We’re just hoping to continue to build it and make it even better going forward.”