Merrillville’s rally falls short in semistate loss to FW Snider
By Michael Osipoff 648-3137 or firstname.lastname@example.org November 16, 2012 11:36PM
Merrillville's Joey Cowser reacts at midfield after the Pirates lost to Ft. Wayne Snider 42-39 at Wayne High School in Ft. Wayne Friday night. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 19, 2012 1:37PM
FORT WAYNE — Merrillville overwhelmed opponents with its high-powered offense throughout the course of the season.
And the Pirates were pretty darn good on that side of the ball in Friday night’s Class 5A semistate against Fort Wayne Snider at Wayne High School.
But they simply couldn’t stop the Panthers — at least in the first half — who displayed a powerful offense of their own.
Snider held off a spirited Merrillville rally, 42-39, advancing to the state championship game against Lawrence Central.
“Shoot, that’s a really good football team, and we didn’t play great in all phases of the game tonight,” Pirates coach Zac Wells said. “But guys were making plays. You definitely can’t say we didn’t give it out all until the very end.
“The guys never gave up.”
After punting on their first possession, the Panthers (14-0) proceeded to score a touchdown on five straight, before halftime truncated their final possession. The Pirates (11-3) actually put up points on four of their six first-half drives, punting on their first and getting stopped on fourth down on another.
Snider led 35-23 at halftime, twice leading by as many as 19 points, before both defenses largely stiffened, and Merrillville attempted a comeback — and nearly succeeding.
“We’re never going to give up,” senior quarterback Jake Raspopovich said. “We always have that mentality. We’re going to play until the last second. We just came up short.
“Our goal was to win state, but we had a really good run. I’ll say that.”
Said junior defensive back Ryan Neal: “It was, like, what do we have to lose? At halftime, we said, we only have one more week of high school football left, so why not fight? We got fired up.”
Matt Warren kicked a 27-yard field goal, his second of the game, with 5:13 left in the third quarter to draw the Pirates to 35-26. They then nearly recovered an onside kick, with the ball deflecting out of bounds.
The Panthers answered with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Phelps to tight end Addison Dellinger, the second time those two connected, with 1:37 left in the third to open a 42-26 lead.
But Neal re-energized Merrillville’s efforts with an interception — his ninth of the season — with 7:16 left in the game, giving the Pirates the ball at the 49-yard line. With 5:26 left, Raspopovich hit Cleveland Lomax for a 10-yard touchdown to make it 42-32. Merrillville then initially made the two-point conversion to make it a one-score game, but a penalty wiped it out, and it couldn’t convert the second time around.
Snider fielded a pooch kickoff, but Merrillville held for a three-and-out, emblematic of its stout second-half defense.
“It wasn’t great stuff,” Wells said of any second-half adjustments. “We had to fix some fundamental stuff defensively. We had to fix our schemes a little bit. It was some Day 1 stuff.”
Neal agreed. “We really didn’t make any changes,” he said. “It was all on us. We didn’t make plays. We missed tackles, we missed assignments. We fixed our mistakes.”
After the stop, Raspopovich found Aaron Dye for a 20-yard touchdown to draw the Pirates to 42-39 with 2:25 left.
The Panthers then recovered the onside kick. On second down, Phelps completed a 7-yard pass to Quinton Daniels for a first down; and Snider ran for another first down to seal its first semistate title since 2004.
“They made plays when they were draped in coverage,” Wells said.
Raspopovich completed his stellar career with a stellar game, completing 22-of-39 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and rushing for 84 yards on 11 carries. Standout receiver Dye had eight catches for 138 yards and a touchdown. Joey Cowser added six catches for 82 yards and a score, and Lomax six for 61 and a score. Dylon Collins, injured knee and all, rushed for 117 yards and a TD on 15 carries.
“I thought our offense played phenomenal tonight. … They played an incredible game, and we needed that,” Wells said.