Back in the spring when the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) released the new football sectional alignment, La Porte head football coach Dave Sharpe had a premonition that this hype-filled, fervor-filled week would arrive.
The last two years, the Slicers were in Class 6A in the same sectional as perennial state-ranked Penn, after reaching the 5A state championship game in 2014. But when the new alignment and classifications came out for this year, La Porte dropped back down to 5A, while Mishawaka, which had won four of the last five sectional titles in 5A Sectional 9 (including a win over Michigan City in last year’s final), moved down to 4A.
“The first thing I thought of when I saw we moved down to 5A was that we’d be playing Michigan City twice,” Sharpe said. “Sure, we didn’t have to face Penn anymore, but I knew how good (City) was going to be.”
The Slicers are pretty good, too. A prime example is the regular season meeting between the rivals earlier this season. Both teams set program records for most points scored in a Duneland Conference game with La Porte winning 58-56 on a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass from quarterback Nolan Lorenz to tight end Mark Haines.
It’s one thing for City and La Porte to face during the regular season with the rivalry between the communities. But this is only the third time they’ve matched up in the postseason, and the first time in a sectional final.
The Wolves beat the Slicers 26-9 in the 1997 sectional opener, while La Porte beat City 24-0 in the magical 2014 postseason (the Wolves actually beat the Slicers during that regular season).
This time, the loser will suffer more than ever before because both teams are 7-3 and will likely consider the season a disappointment without a sectional title.
“The communities have fun with the rivalry and it’s special for the kids,” City head coach Phil Mason said. “But we’re focused on winning championships; we want to win the sectional.”
In his second year at the helm, Mason is new to the rivalry that he considers friendly compared to some of the rivalries he dealt with at his previous coaching job.
“Andrean-Griffith was a bloodbath,” the former Andrean coach said. “We hated each other.”
Yes, I’ve witnessed those games in the postseason when I worked at another Northwest Indiana newspaper. But that rivalry is not community-based since Andrean is a private school. It was based on some great games (similar to the 58-56 City-La Porte thriller) in the postseason or for conference titles.
Sharpe is also fairly new to the county’s most-hyped football rivalry in his third year. He coached at John Glenn before La Porte, but he’s originally from Jimtown, which has a heated rivalry with a school that will likely be waiting for this week’s winner in the regional next week.
“Jimtown and Concord are two miles apart,” he said. “The communities bleed into each other. It would be a four to five thousand (fan) affair when the teams were good.”
That’s what City athletic director Craig Shaman expects Friday night at Ames Field with auxiliary seating being added past the endzones. I'm betting there's more.
The Wolves and Slicers haven’t produced four-thousand-capacity games that much since the Rogers-Elston consolidation in 1995, and they’ve rarely both been this good at the same time.
Unlike Mason and Sharpe, La Porte assistant coach Bob James has experienced the rivalry for more than two decades. The 23-year veteran on the Slicers’ sideline remembers most of the games between the teams. He admits things have changed the last couple years.
“Last year’s regular season game was big; the conference title was on the line,” James said, referring to a 42-35 win that led to the Slicers winning the Duneland outright. “This year’s (regular season game) was big, too, with conference title possible (if the Wolves won, they would have likely won a share of their first DAC crown). The games between our teams are getting bigger, which is awesome for La Porte County.”
Mason downplayed the rivalry a little since his team hasn’t won that much over the years.
“La Porte has kind of dominated it, right?” Mason said.
Yes, La Porte leads the series 20-5. But James downplayed Mason’s downplaying of the rivalry.
“Sure, we’ve been on the good side of the W column, but the games have usually been competitive,” he said. “The games were competitive when Craig Buzea was (City’s coach) and when Bob Holmes was their coach, and when Karp (Mike Karpinski) was coach.
“These kids went to preschool together, go to the same churches, play baseball together in the summer.”
So they know each other and are even friends in some cases? So what. This is for a sectional title. La Porte only has two of those and knows well that anything can happen once you earn that first trophy in a football postseason. Mason does, too, as he tries to lead City to its first sectional title and only the second in the city’s history (Rogers won a sectional in 1984).
Titles supersede friendships, at least for a few hours this Friday night. So it’s not surprising that when I brought up the weather to Sharpe on Monday, he smiled for a second, then was completely honest in his request to Mother Nature.
“Oh, I hope it’s raining,” he said, since his option offense has produced multiple 500-yard outputs this season and thrives in bad weather. “We’ll be doing a rain dance on Thursday night.”
Rain or shine, there has never been a bigger football game between La Porte County football teams. Get ready for the “Game of the Century.”
• La PORTE (7-3) at MICHIGAN CITY (7-3)
Friday, 7 p.m., at Ames Field
Series over last 30 years: La Porte leads 20-5
Skinny: If the rematch between these two rivals is anything like the regular season, 58-56 head-spinning thriller won by La Porte, then the $6 per ticket is the biggest bargain in La Porte County. The stats from the first game are mind numbing. They combined for 1,020 total yards with the Slicers rushing for more than 500. City passed for a little less than 300 yards, but still rushed for a respectable 140 yards. Can the Wolves stop La Porte’s prolific rushing offense, especially with a couple key injuries? Can the Slicers prevent the big plays City is known for this season? Can the Wolves produce a running attack to balance the offense without Daelon Wren, who will likely miss the rest of the postseason?
Prediction: La Porte 64, Michigan City 63 (3 OT)
• SB St. Joseph (5-6) at NEW PRAIRIE (10-1)
Friday, 6:30 p.m., at Amzie Miller Field
Series over last 30 years: New Prairie leads 3-1
Skinny: The Cougars are right back where they were last year — at home in a sectional final against a team they should be favored to beat. So don’t think head coach Russ Radtke hasn’t reminded his players of that little tidbit multiple times this week. New Prairie will be looking for its first sectional title since 2014 when it advanced to the Class 4A state championship game. But it might not be as easy as it looks on paper. St. Joseph might have a losing record, but the Indians play a tough schedule with a narrow loss to Concord (31-30 to a team with only one loss all season) and a road loss to Culver Academy, which is 10-1 and in its own 4A sectional final. If the Cougars can prevent another letdown and hoist another trophy, next week’s regional would either be at Griffith, which is where Radtke coached for 19 seasons, or at Lowell, where there are some bad memories for Radtke’s Griffith teams.
Prediction: New Prairie 35, SB St. Joseph 24
Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at email@example.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.