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October 18, 2011

Peyton Manning fuels high school football in Indiana

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

John Hart likes what he sees from the fans in his state.

"The (Indianapolis) Colts are 0-6 and people are lining up to go to the games," he said. "The Pacers have a hard time giving away tickets."

Hart, you see, is the head football coach at Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central; he is passionate about his sport and his job. And over the last decade he has watched the sport take off inside the state.

"Oh, man," he said. "Indiana is a no-doubt football state now."

His team is currently the No. 8 team in the RivalsHigh 100 and Hart sees first hand the direct correlation to the passion of the people and the improved play on the field.

"Peyton Manning may have done more for high school football in this state than any single person," he said. "His play, elevating the Colts, has made this state football crazed.

"Probably 15 years ago, kids who were 6-foot-4 would spend a lot of time shooting hoops. Now, kids that are 6-foot-4 are going out for wide receiver."

Leigh Evans, the editor and publisher of HickoryHusker.com, the RivalsHigh basketball site for the state of Indiana, said he's not ready to say football has passed basketball in popularity, but he says the gap sure has closed.

"Football has grown considerably in Indiana and many honestly point to the Peyton Manning trickle down," he said. "The Colts have been so successful for so many years, that a very solid football fan base is there."

One that will only grow.

Evans said the recent trend of consolidating of schools in the state has added to football's popularity since it's easier to have a no-cut program in football than basketball, where teams need to be limited.

So during a period in which Manning has made the Colts one of the NFL's most successful teams, more Indiana high school athletes have found it easier to make the football team than the basketball team.

Because of it, more Indiana schools are becoming national players. Warren Central, in fact, is just one of three schools in this week's RivalsHigh 100 rankings.

Carmel (Ind.) High is currently No. 41. And Indianapolis (Ind.) Indianapolis Cathedral, coming off its biggest win of the season, is No. 87.

A year ago, two other schools (Fishers and Center Grove) found their way into the national rankings.

Simply put, there is a lot of football talent in Indiana.

"Carmel may have one of the best defenses in the country," Hart said of his competition. "They have talent at every level with defensive lineman (Langston Newton and Shawn Heffern), linebackers, a lockdown corner (Malcolm Brown) and a hitter at safety (Jimmy Herman).

"And Cathedral has become one of the preeminent Catholic icons in Indiana and the Midwest. They are very disciplined and more athletic than they have been in the past."

Carmel nearly knocked off Warren Central, losing on a last-second field goal, 22-20.

Cathedral played Warren Central to the brink losing, 27-24, but it scored a state-reputation-helping victory last weekend over then-No.6 Cincinnati (Ohio) Moeller, 26-24.

"I thought Cathedral could have beaten [Louisville (Ky.)] Trinity, too," Hart said. "They gave them a heck of a game and had some players go out that changed how it worked out."

Cathedral was tied going into halftime with the nation's No. 2-ranked Trinity, 14-14, before falling 36-14.

It is the out-of-state games that can help build the perception of the state.

Because of it, Hart hopes the Indiana High School Athletics Association will change is travel policy on games.

[Related: RivalsHigh 100 rankings of the top high school football teams nationwide]

Teams from Indiana can not travel outside of a 300-mile radius to play an away game. What is worse, according to Hart, is that teams from outside that radius can not come and play in the state.

"Them not being able to come to us is the worst," he said. "I know I have talked to teams who would have been willing to spend the money to come to Indianapolis. And I know that our situation is not unique. There are schools like Carmel, Cathedral, [Indianapolis (Ind.)] Ben Davis, and I know there are more, who want to further Indiana football and we are being held back."

Or perhaps just slightly limited moving forward.

While powers from Florida, Georgia, Texas and California are out of reach, this week's RivalsHigh 100 lists 11 teams from border states Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky - and that does not include traditional power East St. Louis (Ill.) High, having an unusually tough season.

Hart and some other top coaches would love a change the mileage rule, but the IHSAA says such a rules change does not have the support of member schools.

"No (it is not changing)," IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Robert Faulkens said. "The member Principals have been quite clear on maintaining the current travel limitations."

This much is clear, the commitment to the game by the kids and the fans is strong regardless of the schedule.

"I was coaching in Southeast Illinois and doing well, but this is different here," Hart said. "You have small schools getting big crowds. [Evansville (Ind.)] Mater Dei and [Evansville (Ind.)] Reitz played with 4,000 people in the stands. There may be 800 for that basketball game.

"The kids want it more and they are working harder for it."

Recruiters are noticing.

Warren Central's current senior class could have as many as 12 players signing Division I football scholarships this cycle - which would be as many or more than other powerhouse programs from traditional power states.

"This senior class was not jumping off the page when they were freshman," Hart said. "I think we knew Deionte Buckley and Kevin Davis had potential, but even a kid like Sheldon Day had to work hard to get to where they are.

"That is a big difference between then and now. Kids will do it now. They want a chance to be in front of the crowd."

It is an opportunity that former Warren Central standout, and Mr. Football in Indiana, Darren Evans has. His is now living his dream as a Colt.

Seeing a player make it to that level will continue to fuel the fire of the players coming through the system.

"We are now building athletes," Hart said. "If you look at 10 years ago when the two most talented teams would play with maybe three or four Division I athletes and they could dominate the game. When we play Carmel there were 15 or 16 kids that will play college ball. That helps."

It also helps that others are taking notice even if the outside fan has not had the chance to.

"One of the biggest compliments I got was from Butch Davis," Hart said. "He came to see us when he was recruiting one of our players and he commented that he could tell why people wanted kids from our school, that they were workout leaders, and this was a winter workout. The kids are getting after it.

"There is no way to do this without the kids wanting it."

Or without Peyton Manning, apparently.

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