September 16, 2023 at 9:17 p.m.
MARION — Two and a half seasons.
One thousand seventy-eight days.
Michael Karn’s first head coaching job has been anything but easy. But finally, he and his Panthers felt the joy of victory.
Karn, a 2008 Jay County High School graduate, earned his first win as a head coach Saturday as the Elwood High School football team knocked off the Blackford Bruins 22-12 at Indiana Wesleyan University.
“It feels amazing,” said Karn before repeating that same phrase two more times.
The Panthers’ last victory was a 51-43 overtime triumph over Madison-Grant on Oct. 2, 2020, while Karn was still an assistant at his alma mater.
Elwood (1-4, 1-2 CIC), which came up just short in a 29-26 loss to Southern Wells in its season opener this year, never trailed the Bruins (0-5, 0-3 CIC) as it converted its second fumble recovery of the game for a first-quarter lead. An initial score on a 23-yard run by junior quarterback Jayden Mullins was negated by a block in the back, but six plays later A.J. Flanagan took a toss around the left end to paydirt. Mullins added a 2-point conversion run for an 8-0 advantage.
The teams traded second-quarter touchdowns to make it 15-6 at halftime, and the Panthers extended their lead when Flanagan scored on a 13-yard run at the 8:43 mark of the fourth quarter. Blackford had a chance to pull within one score, but failed on a 2-point conversion try after a 1-yard Carter Clouse TD run. And Elwood covered the Bruins’ attempt at an onside kick to all but seal the win.
The Panthers methodically ran the ball to burn the clock. After an 18-yard run by Mullins gave the Panthers first-and-goal at the 2-yard line with less than two minutes to go, Karn called for “99.” It marked the first time he has called for the kneel down — victory formation — as a head coach.
“Oh my gosh, it feels awesome,” said Mullins, who took a knee three times before throwing his arms in the air and screaming in celebration along with his teammates. “I’ve always rode high with coach Karn. I’ve always believed in him, and I’ve always thought that he could actually change this. Now that he got his first win under his belt, it feels awesome and I feel so happy for him.”
Karn spent eight years as an assistant at Jay County under Tim Millspaugh. He was a finalist for the Elwood job in 2020, but it instead went to Terry Riggs. When Riggs left after a single season, the Panthers reached out to Karn and offered him the position.
He took over a team that had gone 1-28 over the previous three seasons and has not had a winning record since going 6-5 in 2015. He became Elwood’s fourth football coach in as many years.
Nothing has come easy since then. Karn lost his first three games as a head coach by a combined score of 134-6. Eleven of the 26 losses during the skid that ended Saturday were shutouts.
“It’s been really hard,” said Karn. “The kids … they know who we’re playing, how good those teams are. Our conference is full of really, really good teams. And they know that.
“So, for us to continue to keep fighting is really a testament to the kids.”
The Panthers had knocked on the door to victory — a 24-19 sectional loss to Alexandria in 2021 and a 13-6 loss to Blackford last season — but had not been able to break through until Saturday.
“It’s taken a lot of work within the program as far as culture goes,” said Karn. “Not so much Xs and Os and all that stuff, but just a culture change, getting kids to buy in to everything we want to do. …”
He took it as a positive sign that every play dressed up ahead of Saturday’s game — no sweatpants, no shorts.
“It takes time to get kids to do that,” Karn said.
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