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FOOTBALL: Absent From Title Town

Curt Schilling was relishing a World Series MVP award, the first of what would be eight Harry Potter films was tops at the box office, and the public still associated blackberry with fruit rather than phones; this was November 2001 when the Valparaiso football team met with state heavyweight Benn Davis in the 5A title game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.  The Vikings fell 35-16 as Benn Davis took the first of two consecutive state titles.

More than a decade has passed since Valparaiso represented Northwest Indiana in the championship, and no other 5A team from the Calumet region has reached the state’s most coveted contest since that time. A streak of 10 straight seasons without a local 5A team competing in the top game can hardly be called a curse, but for an Indiana region that prizes high school football on the same level as its steel and slot machines, this is one streak that’s starting to take notice in an unsavory way.

Coming into the 2012 season, there’s still uncertainty as to whether or not an area team in the state’s largest class can make a legitimate run at playing in title town come November and put this noticeable absence to rest. More importantly, can they capture the region’s first 5A football title in the last season before the state expands to six classes?

One Step Shy

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The most notable man leading the Vikings in 2001 prior to the start of the region’s 5A title game drought is now in the midst of much larger championship slump lasting not just a decade, but a century.  Jeff Samardzija caught three passes for 45 yards at the RCA Dome that year but was held out of the end zone. The Vikings trailed only by seven at halftime but 21 points scored by Benn Davis in the second half  combined with over 200 yards rushing secured them the crown.

Samardzija, opting the way of pro baseball instead of football following an impressive career at Notre Dame in both sports, may be squarely focused on helping the Chicago Cubs find their way out of the MLB’s most infamous title-less streak but he certainly wouldn’t mind his alma mater reaching the same pinnacle he and fellow teammates did back some time ago. The Vikings have come close.

In 2002, during his senior season, Samardzija and mates avenged their lone loss during the regular season beating Penn in regionals before falling in semi-state to Fort Wayne Snider. Fast forward eight years later as in one of his final seasons head coach Mark Hoffman lead Valparaiso to a surprising 9-0 regular season record and a Duneland Conference crown. After fighting off local foes in the sectional round and topping Mishawaka in regionals, Fishers ended Valparaiso’s perfect season in semi-state.

Twice the Vikings have fallen one game short of a 5A title game appearance, but another region team has fallen not once, not twice, but three times without the charm of competing for state championship. There’s no doubting Merrillville has established themselves as a perennial power throughout the course of recent seasons, having won sectional crown in ’05, ’07, and ’09. Each of those three seasons they fought through the regional round only to experience heartache one step shy of heading down to Indianapolis.

Coupled with Valparaiso’s successful but just falling short campaigns for a state title, and five times the Northwest Indiana area had to put hopeful travel plans down Interstate 65 on hold.

Much Needed Change

Around when Valparaiso made the region’s last appearance in a 5A title game, the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) expanded from six football classes to eight, providing a much deserved opportunity for additional schools to claim a state championship. While’s there’s no doubt our neighbors to the west hold a vast number of high enrollment schools superior to the Hoosier state, one can only think why an expansion hasn’t taken place for more than 20 years in Indiana.

The long overdue stretch to a six-class system will finally occur next year in 2013, as voted on in June by the IHSAA. This move will surely benefit the Northwest Indiana region’s high enrollment schools football-wise in terms of advancing to a title game, as sectional play in the region has shown to provide no different matchups than regular season play throughout the Duneland conference season.

According to unofficial web sources, as it currently stands Lake Central, Merrillville, Portage, Crown Point, and Valparaiso would move to a newly initiated 6A, while Michigan City, Chesterton, LaPorte, and Muster would remain in 5A. This move certainly does guarantee that the region will see a local squad in a title game within the top two classes come next season, but the dividing of the sectional draw that will include high-enrollment schools outside of Northwest Indiana signals change. While change is not always a good thing, in this case, it is.

The Illinois playoff system is not perfect, as evident last year when a defending state champion was seeded in the lower half of a field of 32 after finishing 7-2 (those two losses coming when an all-state quarterback and FBS recruit was out of the lineup), only to go on and convincingly win a second straight title. However, their system is based on an expanded region outside the immediate area where records dictate seeding.

For years the area’s 5A sectional has been a repeat of the conference season, where local teams have gone great lengths in order to outwit their opponents a second time around. Throughout the past decade, this system has ended in a single 5A Region team going the extra mile to defeat teams they faced prior only to come up short of a state title game appearance.

Whether exhaustion from playing in previous rounds against familiar foes or being outclassed by superior teams in the later stages is exactly the reason for the recent 5A title game drought is uncertain. Next year’s change might not produce an immediate result, but will provide a different scenario surely to be more interesting than the former. A new system, new opponents, and hopefully a new result for the Region.

Familiar Faces at the Top

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While Andrean and Lowell have captured titles in the next two highest classes, the Region has unfortunately not had the pleasure of crowning a 5A champion since its inception back in 1985. Prior to the recent title game drought, Valparaiso’s fall in 2001 was one of four times a region team had their championship conquest fall a game short as the Vikings were also the very first 5A runner-up decades earlier while Lake Central and Portage would face similar fates in the early 90’s.

A review of the state championship list shows how a small, yet elite group have dominated Indiana’s highest class, and several times stood as the major roadblock keeping Northwest Indiana title-less. Ben Davis, Penn, Carmel, and Warren Central have accounted for 21 of the 27 5A state titles, and were runner-ups on several other occasions. The reign of Ben Davis has slowed, only to see Warren Central rise as the perennial top dog in past years as they established themselves as a recruiting farm for division I Universities.

Every region team knows that if they hope to contend for a title, odds are they will have to get through at least one of these four state superpowers. Next season, however, all four will join the new 6A. They will still be standing in the way of some, while others in the Region breathe a sigh of relief knowing these juggernauts aren’t awaiting them past the sectional round.

Is This the Year?

Prior to the main test, Indiana holds a nine-week preparation course more commonly referred to as the regular season. The challenge for schools in our area and all across the state has been to steadily improve each week, avoid costly injuries, and have them playing their best once week ten arrives. This is especially difficult for the 5A teams that make up the Duneland Conference, having to face one another before sectionals begin only to know they’ll be squaring off against the same opponents again in the not too distant future. Still, this season marks the final opportunity for a Region 5A team to make a run at the title before the class splits in two next year.

Although some past seasons had a legitimate lead runner, this is certainly to be an interesting campaign through the Duneland Athletic Conference that may feature numerous changes at the top. The DAC is immersed in offensive talent, with the likes of Purdue recruit David Yancey leading Lake Central. Many believe they are the early front runners, but Merrillville, Crown Point, and Chesterton are each more than capable of capturing the conference crown themselves.

Regardless of what happens in the regular season, the same challenge remains. If the lone 5A team that will represent Northwest Indiana in regionals hopes to have any chance of heading down to Indy, they have to be playing at their best following three straight wins over fellow Duneland opponents through the sectional rounds. Not an easy task. Last season, after surviving a close call with Valparaiso and convincingly beating Merrillville in the sectional final, Crown Point was unable to top a superior Penn team in regionals.

The Kingsmen may certainly be waiting again this season for whoever survives sectionals. Opponents from Fort Wayne or Fishers could then be blocking the road to a state championship game if the Region representative was to advance into semi-state. The path has never been easy, nor will it be this season or even next year when the expansion takes place. Whether the region is featured in a 5A title game come November is now up to the players and coaches. They know the challenges that await them, and the familiar foes they’ll face down the road.   Nothing left to do now but watch the excitement unfold.



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