VanKootens help Phillipsburg roll to big rival win

Phillipsburg's Chris VanKooten (62) & Noah VanKooten (71) pursue Norton's Jace Ruder.(Rachel Martin)
By: Conor Nicholl for
Oct 22, 2017

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PHILLIPSBURG – Phillipsburg senior Chris VanKooten and sophomore Noah VanKooten are cousins. The duo spent their childhood together and been best friends all their lives. They often spent time at their grandmother’s house playing football.

“We always looked up to the high schoolers out there playing,” Noah said. “And we just wanted to play football so bad, and then we got our chance in fourth grade.”

Now, the VanKootens are starters on the Panthers’ depth-laden offensive and defensive lines. A veteran, Chris starts on both sides of the ball. Noah is a first-year starter at nose guard.

On Friday, Phillipsburg’s all-around play, especially up front, carried the Panthers to a dominant 56-0 home win versus rival Norton in Class 3A, District 14 action.

Phillipsburg, ranked second in the classification, moved to 8-0, 2-0. Norton dropped to 6-2, 1-1. The Panthers collected its second straight outright Mid-Continent League crown.

“We had the best week of practice that we’ve had all year,” Phillipsburg coach J.B. Covington said. “The kids were very focused and determined, and felt like it was an opportunity, come out and win the MCL outright, which was one of our team goals.”

Norton/Phillipsburg is historically a very close rivalry with generally low scoring games and the road team winning. From ’04-16, Phillipsburg was 0-6 at home versus Norton, a statistic the Panthers’ coaching staff knew.

In the last 14 meetings, this contest marked the most points scored by a team and easily the highest margin of victory. Friday was the Bluejays’ biggest margin of loss since a 2007 season-opening 60-0 defeat to Smith Center, statistically the most dominant team in state history.

This fall, Norton’s lone two losses came against the Panthers and the Redmen (43-0).

“It’s been a weird series with us and Norton,” Covington said. “We seem to play really well over there, and they seem to play really well here, and it normally comes down to an extra point or a field goal or one touchdown or maybe a turnover or a penalty, and the series is just a great rivalry series, and obviously we came out and really played well tonight.”

Phillipsburg led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter, 35-0 at halftime and had a running clock with 6 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third quarter. The Panthers won their 20th straight regular season contest. Afterward, Chris VanKooten pointed to the scoreboard and said “that zero” was the most impressive part of the win.

“That stands out a lot,” he said. “It feels great.”

At halftime, the Bluejays had one first down against two turnovers. Overall, senior quarterback Jace Ruder, a North Carolina commit, finished 3 of 12 passing for 24 yards with two interceptions. Pressured all night, he collected 10 carries for 25 yards. Senior running back Tevin Petrie delivered 10 carries for 18 yards.

“They are really good all the way around,” Norton coach Lucas Melvin said. “Obviously, offensively and defensively, it’s really hard to move the ball against them, and it’s really hard to stop them, so that makes them very tough. They are as advertised. They are legitimate.”

Phillipsburg opened the game with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended on a five-yard scoring run from senior Kirk Coomes. He tallied 14 carries for 116 yards and three rushing scores. Defensively, he batted one pass in the air and then picked it off to set up a short field and eventual TD.

“It means a lot all of us seniors,” Coomes said. “We haven’t had a win against Norton on our home field yet, and we’ve had some tough battles with them in the past few years, and to go out in this fashion with a shutout against them is really something impressive, because they have got Jace Ruder at quarterback, and he is really good at throwing, and they have Tevin Petrie.”

Norton had six yards on its first three plays and faced a 4th-and-4 from the Panther 48-yard line. The Bluejays used a formation Phillipsburg hadn’t seen, and the Panthers quickly called timeout with 4:40 remaining in the first quarter. Ruder went for the fake punt and tossed an incompletion.

“We were still expecting them to punt the ball, and then when they faked it, it worked out all right for us,” Covington said.

After a Panther fumble, Norton had just two yards on its next possession before a punt. Of the offensive linemen, Chris VanKooten and senior Nate Tedford, a first-year starter, also start on the defensive line. Junior Kasen Keeten is a starter on the offensive line and at linebacker. On a team with 16 seniors, Phillipsburg rotates more than 10 Panthers on the defensive line.

“The depth that we have been able to develop just pays off huge for us,” Covington said.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Tedford has especially impressed after he replaced all-state lineman Seth Jacobs. He recovered a second-half fumble.

“After football season, Nate really turned it on in the weight room, and had a great offseason, great summer and he’s another just a big physical guy with a great motor for us,” Covington said.

Noah (6-4, 255) often lines up next to Chris (6-1, 230) on the defensive line.

“Very honored, because last year I would be the one who would be on scout team, being pushed around, shoved down, all things like that,” Noah said.

Chris, known for his mean streak, credited his mother, Kristine, for helping him develop the trait. Noah said his toughness comes from his mother, Melinda.

“She goes through a lot and gets through it really well,” Noah said. “Pretty much everything - she pushes me to get better, she tells me every time before a game ‘go out at them, don’t let up, lay everything out.’”

Coomes opened the second quarter with a nine-yard run for a 14-0 lead. Then, senior Trey Thompson intercepted Ruder and set up a short field.

Junior quarterback Trey Sides tossed an 18-yard scoring pass to senior Braden Juenemann, the first of his two touchdown passes, for a 21-0 advantage. Later in the quarter, Chris VanKooten broke through for a sack.

“Very close-knit family, and you can tell the moms have raised them right,” Covington said. “They are good kids, and they have both have huge motors, and that’s the key. To be a defensive lineman, not get a lot of credit, or an offensive lineman, not get a lot of credit, sometimes it’s not a whole lot of fun.

“But those guys, I think they really do have fun playing with each other and playing with their teammates and even in practice, they are competitive guys,” he added.

On the next drive, Sides found Thompson for a 20-yard score. After Coomes’ interception, senior John Gower tallied a three-yard TD just before halftime. Gower had 14 carries for 83 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns. Junior Treylan Gross finished with 12 carries for 130 yards and a score.

“They just do a great job of running their offense and doing their schemes and getting on people and blocking them,” Melvin said. “They have good enough linemen up front, they can block you 1-on-1.”

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