Now that the pre-conference games and the first three conference contests are in the books and the 2007 prep football season has passed the midway point, it’s time to review who’s hot and who’s not and take a look at how the conference races, new and old, are taking shape, assess some of the surprises and maybe take a peek in the crystal ball here and there.
Duneland Athletic Conference – The DAC is historically one of the most competitive conferences in the state, and this year is no exception. While it may be no surprise that Crown Point sits atop the standings with a 3-0 conference mark and that there is a logjam in the middle, it is a bit of a surprise to most, if not all, that Portage, along with Michigan City, brings up the rear at 0-3. Crown Point should be able to grind it out the rest of the way, but if the Bulldogs stumble, the Merrillville Pirates will be waiting. Chesterton Valparaiso and Lake Central are also just a game back. But with history once again as our guide, Chesterton’s home loss to Valpo last week would indicate that the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Golden Trojans are about to enter another second half slide and the remaining schedule is simply too tough for Valparaiso. If there is a dark horse here, it would be Lake Central.
Disappointments: Portage – The Indians have lost three straight in the DAC after a 2-0 non-conference start including a win over Andrean, but what is puzzling is how they seem to be regressing. After losing close ballgames to upstart Lake Central and Merrillville to open DAC play, Portage was completely dominated by Crown Point and seemed totally out of synch offensively. Purdue bound RB Albert Evans has not been able to get untracked and the lack of a passing game is not helping Evans find any holes either. Without question, the Indians are a little banged up, but what team doesn’t have injury issues at this time of the season. Remember, this was a team that had state title aspirations. But if history is any guide and Portage is to begin to resemble Portage, this should be the week it begins. Remember, the Indians were off to a 1-4 start last season heading into Week Six. In Week Six last year, Portage came away with a 6-3 overtime win over Chesterton to begin a five game winning streak to close out the season before the Indians fell to Crown Point in the 5A sectional semi-finals by a point in overtime. Look for a repeat performance beginning this week with Chesterton on the docket.
Surprises: Lake Central – Lake Central got off to a 3-0 start for the second straight year, but that’s where the similarity ended. Where last years’ team was a work in progress and a bit of a paper tiger, the Indians have made believers of the rest of the DAC following their road win at La Porte. With the only blemish on their record a respectable loss to Crown Point, if the Indians can get consistent quarterback play down the stretch and cut down on the turnovers, LC should be in the thick of things right down to the wire. Overlooked for the job the first time around, Bill Melby has emerged as a leading candidate for Coach of the Year.
Northwest Crossroads Conference – Although Hobart currently sits on top of the hill, Griffith’s controversial overtime win over Lowell at the Inferno has created the potential for a three way tie at the top if Lowell can beat Hobart this week, and the Red Devils have had the Brickies number in recent seasons. Although Andrean and Munster are still in the title mix with just one loss, the 59’ers may end up playing the spoiler role with games remaining against both Lowell and arch-rival Griffith, and Munster is talented enough to be dangerous and should not be taken lightly. The only consolation for Highland and Kankakee Valley is that they have yet to play one another, so one of the two will not go winless in conference play.
Surprises: Lowell – Lowell always fields a solid team that will be better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning, as evidenced by a 4A state championship in 2005 and a sectional championship last year, both after 1-4 starts. And Lowell figured to be a little slow out of the gate this year with unknown quantities at key positions. But the Devils are perhaps more physical than ever this year, if such a thing is possible, and to date are the only team in Northwest Indiana to beat Crown Point, roaring back from an early 14-0 deficit in the process, which makes their loss to Griffith even more mystifying. Coach Kirk Kennedy has challenged his players to play against their own potential rather than their opponents, and if they can do that successfully, the Red Devils could be in for another long run.
Greater South Shore Conference – The GSSC figured to be one of the most competitive of Northwest Indiana’s conferences, and with three teams still in the mix, those prognostications are holding up. Wheeler and Calumet are currently tied for the top slot. Wheeler has been keyed by their second half comeback from a 26-7 halftime deficit against preseason favorite Whiting in Week Two and the Bearcats currently hold their destiny in their own hands, and barring a letdown, should end up on top. A season ending title tilt at Calumet looms. Whiting should win out from this point but needs help to grab a piece of the crown. The South Central Satellites find themselves in the middle of the pack despite playing well but are capable of the big upset, and along with Bishop Noll head up a group including North Newton, Lake Station and River Forest in the second division. North Newton, like South Central is learning what real Northwest Indiana conference play is all about. Lake Station and River Forest bring up the rear while they rebuild their programs but should improve given the nature of the conference.
Disappointments: Bishop Noll – With the talent Bishop Noll had returning, the Warriors figured to be one of the teams in the title hunt in the GSSC. But whether it was the late coaching change after former coach Mark Peterson left for Portage or something else, Noll has been an enigma so far this season. Beginning with the surprising season opening loss to Gavit, with the exception of the Lake Station game, the Warriors have gotten out of the gate slowly all season, and it’s tough to have to play catch up all the time.
Surprises: Wheeler – The Bearcats have been competitive ever since they first began varsity play a few years back, but given their losses to graduation from last years team, they didn’t figure to be the dominant team in the GSSC, and it didn’t look that way early on. After knocking off everybody’s favorite creampuff Highland in the opener, Wheeler was shut out by Kankakee Valley and the following week, trailed Whiting by 19 points at the half. At that point, the Bearcats were turning the ball over like a short order cook flips hamburgers; but something clicked at the half of that game, and the Bearcats quit treating the football like a hot potato and stormed back to whip the Oilers, their nemesis in the old LAC Blue. Since that game, the Bearcats have looked like a completely different team, scoring better than 60 points in each of the last two weeks.
Hammond Athletic Conference – Morton hasn’t lost a game to another Hammond school since the 2001 season, a span of 18 games to date, but the Governors struggled to a two point win over Clark in their only conference match-up so far. In recent years, Morton has been a high scoring, athletic football team, but not this year. This year the Governors are a grind it out, three yards and a cloud of dust football team, so their mistakes have been magnified, but the Governors can all but wrap up the HAC title with a win against undefeated Hammond High tonight in the biggest game in the City of Hammond in years. Pundits have been knocking the level of competition the Wildcats have played but all Hammond has done is knock off every team on the schedule thus far, and have emerged as Northwest Indiana’s last unbeaten team. Clark has played well but has to hope for a Morton loss tonight and then will have to beat Hammond themselves in order to win the title. Gavit surprised Bishop Noll in the opener, but have gone winless since and even though they haven’t played a conference game yet, an HAC title has to be considered a long shot.
Surprises: Hammond High – Who’da thunk it? The Wildcats are the Region’s last unbeaten, and have done so against some long odds. Coach Robert Robinson was an unknown quantity before the season but would have to get Coach of the Year consideration at this point. There are always talented athletes at Hammond but they don’t always come out for the team; but this year the kids have bought into the system, enthusiasm is high and the numbers are up. And regardless of the quality of the Wildcats opponents so far, David Moore and Louis Willis are game breakers on anybody’s football team.
Northwestern Conference – Roosevelt has been the dominant team in the NWC in recent seasons, but Lew Wallace has served notice that there is till life in the Hornets program and Saturday’s “Black & Gold Bowl” between the rivals has championship implications. West Side could still play the role of spoiler with a season ending game againt Roosevelt.
Chris Lannin can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org