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Inside The State Finals

There’s a special excitement on Thanksgiving weekend for the players and coaches of the teams who have made it to the state finals. My brother Tony and I got a taste of that excitement this year as we traveled down to Indy to check out the state championship games and report back for the Region Sports Network.

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It was great to head down I-65 and reminisce about the times we made that drive before with hopes of winning a state championship; as players at Hobart and as coaches at Andrean. We even played a little AC/DC and Rush to get us in the mood. But unfortunately, neither of us ever won in that last game and that thought also resonated in our minds.

In fact, of the four times I was fortunate enough to be there as a player and coach, three of the losses came at the hands of teams that were playing there last Saturday. It was Warren Central that got the better of us at Hobart in 1984 and it was Chatard that beat us at Andrean in both 1997 and 2001. And those memories all came to a head when we walked through the tunnel at the RCA Dome and thought about all our missed chances. And the rotten feeling it gave us is way too harrowing of a feeling to describe.

But then it all went away. It was 2006 now and we had the opportunity to get up close and behind the scenes with the teams that were about to play the game of their lives. I have to admit that in the 3A game, I really didn’t care much about what Norwell did before the game. I was more interested in Chatard.

I waited by the locker room for the team to come back from their pre-game warm ups. What I really wanted to see was their demeanor, and this was definitely a team that was comfortable with their surroundings.

They had played there before, for regular season and championship games and, as usual, had practiced in the Colts indoor facility all week. That much I expected.

But what I didn’t expect was the passion and hunger for the win from everyone that roamed the Chatard sidelines from the trainers to the priest. The quote of the day came when the priest addressed the team as it left the locker room for the second half. With the look of a man possessed, he yelled: “The first half was for fun, but the second half is forever, EVER!!!”

That’s when I knew why this team was so good year in and year out. It’s really hard to beat that type of passion, especially coming from the school priest. Chatard was on a mission in their hometown, with the unbridled support of everyone involved with the school. It was a really powerful display of unity for a single purpose and lent understanding as to why they are 8-1 in state title games.

The 4A game between Cathedral and Concord was up next and we got back to the Dome just in time to hang out with Cathedral as they gathered in the tunnel for their grand entrance.

The “Fighting Irish” were lead out by a guy in a skirt playing a bag pipe. (No disrespect intended, I really don’t know what they call that skirt and the bag pipe player.) Regardless, they looked ready; absolutely huge linemen, fast backs, and head coach Jim O’Hara.

I had never seen O’Hara before, but I did notice this hip looking older guy (older than me at least) walking into the tunnel with a cool smile on his face with the collar turned up on his white pullover.

He looked up at a pretty young blonde lady and waved. She waved back and as he turned to jog onto the field, she started to clap her hands and cry. You could feel the emotion. She wanted that guy to win this game in a way that only a family member could.

Being the wannabe investigative reporter that I am, I went up to see what the story was and the young lady turned out to be Coach O’Hara’s daughter.

Last spring she had become engaged and unknowingly had planned her wedding on the day after the sectional championship. But Coach had told her not to change the date; even as the sectionals approached and it became evident that they might advance far into the playoffs.

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She had felt like her wedding plans were taking away from his coaching and said she would have absolutely died if they hadn’t won the game that week. But things had obviously worked out and she was there to support her Dad as he won the 4A state championship.

In the 5A game between Carmel and Warren Central there was one story as far as I was concerned: Mo Moriarity. For those who don’t know, Mo is the head coach at Carmel, a former assistant at IU and the former head coach at Bloomington South when Rex Grossman played there. Now I know that Warren Central made history by winning four state titles in a row, but the job Moriarity has done at Carmel is amazing.

The Greyhounds had a losing record and no organized weight program when he took over two years ago and somehow he managed to take Carmel back to the title game for the first time since 1989.

But even more amazing are the guys he did it with. No offense to the Carmel players but they looked like a team that didn’t have an organized weight program during their first years of high school. They played hard but were no match compared for the bigger, stronger and faster athletes at Warren Central. But, hats off to Coach Moriarity and Carmel, they were the only team I actually cheered for the whole day.

All in all, it was a great day of high school football but one guy left me with a sobering thought. This particular individual was roaming the sidelines all day, enjoying the games.
We were standing behind the Warren Central bench and he asked me what I was doing at all the games. I answered and shot the question back at him. He said he had called up the IHSAA and said that he wanted to watch some football.

I didn’t think just anyone could do that and end up with a sideline pass so I bit and asked him where he was from. It turns out that he was a scout from the University of Florida and to sum up our conversation, he wasn’t impressed.

He didn’t think that anyone at the RCA Dome that day was fast enough to play for Florida and told me I that should see some Florida high school football.

Maybe he had a point, but I’m not sold. I’m too busy with coaching my own football team (Rich South) to claim to be an authority on the level of play in Indiana as opposed to anywhere else, much less Florida, but I do know that there are some pretty good Indiana high school football players in the college ranks today.

Maybe the name of Jeff Samardzija from Notre Dame rings a bell or maybe Rob Caldwell from Navy. Having coached Caldwell his sophomore and junior years at Andrean, I know for a fact that he didn’t have the D-I schools like Florida knocking down his door. But he still ended up in the top ten in the nation in tackles.

It wasn’t the right time to argue with some southern guy coming up here and bashing our football in Indiana and the Midwest but nonetheless I felt like reminding him that the latest poll of the Top Ten teams in the nation includes Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Louisville, not to mention 12th ranked Notre Dame.

And maybe there are better high school players elsewhere in the country, but very few get to experience the atmosphere that Indiana high school football players do when they make it to the state finals.

Maybe I could best sum up my feelings this way. As Tony and I were walking up to the Dome in the morning, there was a Dad walking alongside us with his two sons and we overheard him exclaim to his boys “Can it get more perfect than this?” I couldn’t have said it any better myself


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