Gorches: Merrillville has what it takes to go far
By Steve T. Gorches 648-3141 or email@example.com October 27, 2012 11:16PM
Merrillville's Bruce Thomas intercepts a Chesterton pass intended for Joe Troop in the third quarter Friday night at Merrillville High School.| Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 29, 2012 6:55AM
Remember the sequel to the popular baseball movie, “Major League” (Major League 2 came out in 1994) when Japanese outfielder, Isuro Tanaka, berated the Indians’ power hitter Pedro Cerrano for his lack of intestinal fortitude?
“You have no marbles,” Tanaka told Cerrano.
That’s not a problem for Merrillville football coach Zac Wells. Not after his key coaching decision Friday night that admittedly shifted momentum on both sides of the field, and led to the Pirates rolling over Chesterton 45-21 in their sectional semifinal.
Needless to say, the Pirates have the Trojans number in the postseason. After having their team’s season end at the hands of Wells’ purple people eaters for the sixth time in seven years, Chesterton fans may be having nightmares about the color purple.
That one play came at the end of the first half when Merrillville got the ball back at Chesterton’s 27 yard line with only 34.6 seconds left and a 17-14 lead. The Trojans started the previous drive at their own 20, but back-to-back sacks on quarterback Chris Katsafaros put Chesterton at its own 2 in a punting situation, and the wind in its face.
Not an ideal situation, and the punt only went 25 yards.
So the potent Merrillville offense had time to matriculate a short field. The first play was a 25-yard pass to Brian Jenkins putting the Pirates at same 2 yard line the Trojans punted from 10 seconds earlier. A spike from quarterback Jake Raspopovich stopped the clock. Then, a one-yard run by running back Dylon Collins — who was back after a leg injury that was thought to have ended his season (talk about intestinal fortitude) — gave the Pirates third-and-goal inside the 1 and the clock was running.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
Raspopovich, who usually makes the right decisions on the field, wasn’t getting the play from the sidelines expeditiously and he almost blew it as Wells yelled, “Spike, spike, spike!”
Raspopovich spiked the ball with just 0.7 seconds left.
Here’s what makes sports so awesome. In that final second of the half, the fate of the game was in the balance. If Merrillville’s senior QB waits an instant later to spike the ball, Chesterton gets the ball to start the second half only down three points. After a back-and-forth first half, the Trojans would have felt good about their chances.
Wells decided to kick the field goal to give his team a six-point lead. And just before the snap, Trojans’ head coach John Snyder calls a timeout — following common occurrence in the NFL and college when coaches try to “ice the kicker.”
With extra time to think about it, and getting some input from his assistants in the booth next to the press box, Wells changed his mind and emphatically sent the offense back onto the field.
Let’s pause here and go back two weeks to the regular season finale. Merrillville was in a similar position at the end of the game against Chesterton. The Pirates were at around the 12 yard line, fourth down and losing by five points, in the final two minutes of the contest. In that situation, you have to go for it, but Chesterton’s defense came through, stopping Merrillville inches short of a first down to earn a share of the Duneland Conference title with a 40-35 victory.
Call it fate. Call it karma. Call it bad luck, but those situations just don’t go Chesterton’s way against Merrillville in the postseason, and it didn’t after Wells’ extremely gutsy call. Raspopovich trotted into the end zone untouched as the clock reached zeroes to end the first half and the Pirates had a 10-point halftime lead.
That was basically the ball game.
It came down to one play with three twists in less than a second, and the result was the same as the five other times in the last seven years for Chesterton — heartbreak.
“I’m disappointed with the result of this game, but I’m not going to be disappointed with a 9-2 season,” Snyder said.
It was a play on offense, but Wells gave credit to his much-maligned defense for fixing some of its issues from the previous loss to the Trojans.
“I’m so proud of our defense,” he said. “Son of a gun ... we brushed off what’s been said and worked hard this week on our mistakes from the last time we faced them.”
The Pirates’ offense has been praised by pundits, and rightfully so as it’s averaging more than 41 points per game and topping the 60-point mark twice. But in three of its victories, Merrillville has given up 38 points or more. The defense averages 26.7 points against, but take out the 41-0 win over LaPorte (a team that finished 1-9) and the average rises to 29.4 points per game.
It was a matter of the players on defense realizing they’re just as talented as the offense.
“We just had to tighten up the little mistakes that have led to big plays,” said junior defensive back Ryan Neal, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery Friday night. “The message from the beginning of the season was that we had a lot of potential and we just had to use it. It seems like we were scared of how great we could be and we just had to play our game.”
That they did against the Trojans with big plays of their own to mirror the offense’s big plays all season, including Friday — a 46-yard pass to Jenkins and an 80-yard shovel pass to Collins were among them.
If both sides of the ball have come together for Merrillville, watch out. It could be another long postseason run.