A royal invitation
The last time Russ Radtke crossed paths with Penn, it was the 1997 state football finals at the Hoosier Dome.
Radtke was coaching Griffith in the Class 4A final and Chris Geesman had the Kingsmen in Indianapolis for the 5A championship.
“We had the same locker room,” Radtke recalled. “We both had gold helmets. The only difference was ours didn’t have anything on it and theirs had the big P. We come in at halftime and he asks me if there was something in our playbook that they could do. I asked him, do you have anything for me?”
Not that either needed anybody else’s help that Saturday. Radtke’s Panthers crushed Hamilton Southeastern 49-7 for the 4A title and Penn nipped Bloomington South 21-20 for the 5A crown.
Friday at Freed Field, 21 years later, Radtke and Penn, two names synonymous with prep football success in Indiana, will finally meet up again. Once again, both teams’ helmets will be gold, only this time they won’t be sharing the same digs. This time, Radtke will be leading New Prairie against the Kingsmen, led by Geesman’s successor Cory Yeoman, in a pivotal Northern Indiana Conference game.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity,” Radtke said. “Every week, we’re seeing something different and this week we’re getting it all. That’s what makes us better.”
The schools have never met in football, this meeting coming about as a result of New Prairie’s promotion into the bigger division of the NIC. Penn played New Carlisle five times back in the early 60s, prior to its consolidation with Rolling Prairie into New Prairie, with the Kingsmen holding a 2-1-2 edge in that series.
“They’re over 3,000 (enrollment) and we’re not quite at 1,000, but when the whistle’s blown, they can only have 11 on the field at a time,” Radtke said. “Hopefully, our kids take that attitude and get after it, attack. This isn’t David looking for a rock to put in his slingshot.”
Penn has long been the benchmark big school program in northern Indiana and a perennial state contender. It has won five state titles, including three in a row from 1996 to 1998, and has been runner-up seven times. It brings a 45-game NIC winning streak into the matchup. One major advantage, Radtke joked, is Penn’s sparkling new football facility houses 35 toilets while New Prairie’s has just two.
“They have a few more things, but you have to play the game — that’s all that counts,” he said. “We’re not scared. We’re not worried. We respect them and we hope to gain their respect in playing them. We’re going to give it our best shot.”
On the other side, Radtke has raised the bar across the board at New Prairie, branding his emblem of success at the school, where he is 64-16 (80 percent) with only three conference losses in his tenure. The Cougars have won three sectional titles, a regional and a semistate, reaching state in 2014.
“I think people realize now who New Prairie is as an opponent,” he said. “Our administration, the school board, the community has put in a lot of time and effort to help make our situation, our setup, better. You look at our lower levels, our JV and freshmen are 4-2, our eighth grade is undefeated and hasn’t been beaten in two years. As far as a program, I think we’re doing the same things they are. You take out the word Penn and put in the New Prairie name, it’s the same thing. We’ve gained the respect we deserve for what we’ve done in six years. They’ve just been doing it a lot longer.”