Walking down 119th Street in Whiting on football Fridays when the home team has an important game can be a lonesome experience.
Shops are closed and store windows are festooned with “Go Oilers” signs. Your stroll is rarely interrupted and, if it is, it’s usually by someone late leaving work and headed towards the stadium. Heading towards the glow of the stadium lights, the din hits your senses as you walk through the large parking lot. The crowd is there well before game time and ready to cheer the Oilers on to victory.
This scenario has been played out for decades on the Shores of Lake Michigan. Cheering for the Oilers is a right of passage for the residents of Whiting and the football team has always held up its end of the bargain.
Under the leadership of the legendary Ray Gallivan, Whiting football flourished and in 1948 and 1954 his teams were deemed the best in the state in those days of mythical teams and champions. Gallivan’s achievements secured him a spot in the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. It’s a challenging legacy but current coach Jeff Cain has built an impressive career of his own since taking over in 1995 from Sherwood Haydock.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been blessed with great kids,” Cain said. “They are dedicated to the sport of football and have committed themselves to becoming the best players they can be. The families are supportive and are great at backing the team. It’s just a great place to be a coach.”
The numbers that Cain and his assistant coaches have amassed are impressive. His nearly 66 percent winning percentage is tops in school history and his 92 wins are second to the 126 that Gallivan won in his storied career.
Cain won back to back sectionals in 1996 and 1997 and the 1996 team won the schools only football regional. However the 1997 team is the one that probably had the best shot at a trip to the Dome. Nursing a late lead in the regional contest at Pioneer, a fumbled handoff was recovered by the home team and was converted into the winning touchdown. Pioneer won its semi-state and state-final games easily leaving the Oilers with a bad case of what might have been. The close calls were hard to take but the leader of that team was one of the most best Region players of the decade.
Paul Strabavy wreaked havoc on area defenses for four seasons as an Oiler and some of his numbers are staggering. He gained 5,019 yards rushing and on defense he had 483 tackles before heading off to Ball State. Today, he is policeman in South Bend.
“Paul was one of those kids that comes along every once in awhile,” Cain said. “He had a lot of natural ability and he was totally involved in football. He worked at every phase of the game.”
There have been great seasons of a more recent vintage. The 2004-2006 era teams went 30-5 and had 11-0 regular seasons in 2004 and 2005. Each of those three seasons was ended by West Central in sectional play. The marquee name on those teams was the versatile Matt Kobli who currently is at Butler.
“Matt was also a very good baseball and basketball player,” Cain said. “He and Paul were very dedicated athletes with good work ethics. Overall I’ve been real happy with the work put in by the kids at this school.”
Cain is a 1979 graduate of Lafayette Harrison and in 1986 earned his degree from Purdue. He served as defensive coordinator for Haydock for several years before becoming head coach.
“The fans here are the best,” Cain said. “The players feed off the excitement and they know the people of this town are behind them.”
Any discussion of Whiting football must include loyalty.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the former players who return to become assistants,” Cain said. “That shows they had a lot of pride in wearing this uniform and they want to help instill that pride in the current group of players.”
“One wish I have for these fans and this town is to make a deep run in the playoffs,” Cain continued.
“One of the things that makes coaching so much fun is that you never know which year might be that year. Or which kid or kids may surprise you and become great players.”
Cain teaches in the Whiting School system and lives in Portage.
“I’m going to stay here as long they want me,” Cain said. “I still enjoy coaching and I still enjoy this town.”