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Thursday, November 6, 2008
Updated: November 7, 9:06 AM ET
Chemistry experiment pays off at Ben Davis

By Patrick Dorsey
Special to ESPNRISE.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Greg Rice doesn't want to hear it.

Greg Rice
Greg Rice attributes the team's success this season to improved chemistry.

He knows the name on the front of his football jersey.

He knows those letters on a wall behind the north end zone -- the ones that spell out "Ben Davis Football," then list all the years the school won Indiana state championships (and even a national title).

Rice gets it. Ben Davis High School has a lot of history. And the senior starting quarterback and his teammates aren't a major part of it. Yet.

But the Giants, 8-3 this year, have a chance, starting Friday against nearby Avon (9-2). Win that one, and it's a sectional title -- something that has been a little elusive lately at Indiana's largest high school. Then it's on to regionals, semistates and maybe even state.

Rice isn't sure which one(s) it'll be. It might not be any.

But he is sure of one thing:

"We'll build our own tradition," Rice said, "based on the team we have, which is totally different than the teams we had in the past."

'In the past'

About that past …

• State championships in 1999, 2001 and 2002, including two undefeated seasons
• Seven Indiana state titles since 1987, the most among Class 5A schools
• Nine title-game appearances, also the most in 5A
• The top spot in the 1991 National Prep Football Poll's final ranking
• Thirteen regional crowns and 17 sectional trophies
• Numerous college prospects, including at the Division I level

That last fact hasn't changed, as three 2008 graduates (Indiana receiver Tandon Doss, injured Central Michigan defensive back LaVarus Williams and currently ineligible Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray) are with Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) programs, and one Class of 2009 member (Cincinnati commit Jordan Stepp, a defensive lineman) appears headed that way.

But as a team, the success has slipped a bit since legendary coach Dick Dullaghan retired after 2003. Under Dullaghan's replacement, former coach Tom Allen, and coach Mike Kirschner (now in his second year), the Giants have won just one of the past three sectionals after winning 10 straight.

Meanwhile, crosstown rival Warren Central won four straight state titles from 2003 to 2006. Another team from the powerhouse Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference, Carmel, won last year. A third fellow MIC team, Center Grove, has climbed to No. 1 this season.

Then, on Oct. 10, things really started to slip. A week after a blowout loss to Center Grove, Ben Davis traveled to tradition-starved Lawrence North (no sectional titles since 1990), only to be stunned 14-10 and fall to 5-3.

The rumbling started: "Ben Davis isn't what it used to be …"

'Our turnaround point'

A week later, the same statement became true all over again -- but in a much different way. Because the Giants beat Carmel 24-17. As in, then-No. 1 in the state Carmel. As in, then-ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 16 in the nation Carmel.

Mike Kirschner
Coach Mike Kirschner is looking for his first sectional title at Ben Davis.

If the Lawrence North loss was an "eye-opener," in Kirschner's words, the Carmel win was "our turnaround point" to junior linebacker Isaiah Lewis.

"That was our key win of the season," Stepp said. "Obviously, [Carmel was] ranked, but I think what we got out of that game is we came together, and we kind of made our own identity. I mean, we kind of struggled all season. We didn't really know who we were, and sometimes it's tough -- with all this tradition at Ben Davis -- to be something to be known for. And after Carmel, we kind of found what we've been searching for all season."

Of course, they could have lost it one week later in the first round of the playoffs, had Ben Davis repeated last year's sectional loss to upstart Pike -- a school that went from middling to 2007 state runner-up in just one year.

So players taped last year's sectional score -- 20-12 -- in their lockers, then dominated the seventh-ranked Red Devils 34-14. The Giants followed with a 45-10 win against overmatched Brownsburg.

Now …

'Our potential'

"[We're] playing to our potential," Lewis said, and it's a potential the Giants knew they could reach.

Ben Davis
Ben Davis is hoping to keep rolling all the way to a state title.

They didn't mind losing their three FBS-bound standouts; the team's leaders even chose to remove names from the back of their jerseys, hoping to eliminate the "superstar problem" that Kirschner said plagued Ben Davis in last year's 7-4 campaign.

Instead, the 2008 Giants are spreading things around. Four players -- Rice and running backs Miles Wright, Donte Asher and Phillip Dudley -- have more than 560 rushing yards each, helping Ben Davis combine for 3,017 through 11 games.

Defensively, 11 players have combined for the team's 24.5 sacks, and eight players have at least 20 tackles. Not included in that eight? Cincinnati-bound Stepp, who missed the first three games and was limited in the fourth.

All of this adds up to a tough team for anyone to face, as Carmel found out, and as Avon likely will this week.

Still, "tough to face" doesn't equal the multiple championships of Ben Davis' past -- although Kirschner himself isn't haunted by the Giants' previous success. He said he senses no pressure from the administration, and athletic director Kevin Britt -- whose father, former athletic director Bob Britt, coached football at Ben Davis in the 1960s -- said he feels little from outside sources.

"As long as you're doing the right things [as a program], that's what truly counts," Britt said. "Hopefully, along the way, you end up winning state championships."

But first, they'll take a sectional championship.

Rice will, anyway.

"I'm not going to say that the game is already over," Rice said, "but I told [Kirschner] not to expect anything less than the sectional title.

"What goes beyond that, we don't know."

Whatever it is, it will be history. Rice's history. His teammates' history.

No one else's.

Patrick Dorsey is a high school sports reporter for The Indianapolis Star.