It was a long walk from the wet football field to Michigan City’s designated locker room at Kokomo High School last Friday after the Wolves’ 21-14 loss in the Class 5A semistate.
City just put forth a valiant effort in the second half against the WildKats, which were up 21-7 at halftime, with a goal line stand on defense, a touchdown drive in a torrential rainstorm on offense, and almost pulling off an improbable game-tying drive from 99 yards away.
And when head coach Phil Mason finally had a chance to talk after consoling his valiant warriors, he looked tired. Maybe it was the long walk, followed by looking his players in their collective eyes after a loss for the first time in more than a month. Maybe it was just a long season coming to a close a week before they hoped.
Or maybe the look was a little bit of that football coach paranoia I’ve witnessed in 18 years of covering high school sports since he seemed to think there were people in the grandstands on City’s side of the field that had an issue with the effort of his team or even the coaches.
“I’m sure there are critics out there, but that’s fine,” he said.
Really? I mean, I know how many football coaches like to portray an us-against-the-world attitude, but in this case, it wouldn’t make any sense.
It’s Thanksgiving and every fan of Michigan City athletics should be very thankful for what they witnessed on the gridiron this fall.
Sure, the players were very disappointed on Friday night, especially the seniors. But those upperclassmen should always remember what they were part of this season. Just ask Mason.
“They need to feel good about what they did this year,” he said.
The Wolves are no longer an afterthought when it comes to football. On the night Mason was officially hired as football coach, he talked about changing the culture.
It only took two years.
No other coach could do it over the last 22 years MCHS has existed. There would be a winning season, loss in the sectional, then a losing campaign the next year. That scenario happened in 1995 and 1996, then in 2000 and 2001, and in 2005 and 2006, and again in 2009 and 2010.
The first part of the scenario occurred in 2016 when Mason led the Wolves to a 7-4 record with a loss at Mishawaka in the sectional final in his first year at the helm.
But it was part of the process, and 2017 was a season of firsts.
The first time City scored as many as 56 points in a Duneland Conference game. They did it three times in four weeks.
Senior Daelon Wren was the first Wolves’ running back to rush for as many as 369 yards in a game, and matching the program record of six rushing TDs in that same game.
Senior Michael McCullough was the first Wolves’ QB to throw for six TDs in a game (he did it the week after Wren’s record).
The first football sectional title in school history — and they did it against county rival La Porte.
The first regional title in program history, in what could be the coldest temperatures during a game in which a City team has played.
Mason was right in his immediate reaction after the game. The kids should be proud of what they accomplished.
So should Mason and his staff.
Two years. Let me repeat that … two years. That’s all it took for Mason to transform City football from Duneland doormat to regional champ.
We at The News-Dispatch don’t have coach of the year awards for our sports. But if we did, Mason should be coach of the century in this town.
“It has to do with winning and the process of team,” Mason explained. “Programs without much success over the years, things are based on individual stats. But we’ve taken leaps and bounds. The kids need to understand responsibility and what it takes to win.”
Mason has been to semistate before. This was his fourth appearance as a head coach and he’s now 2-2.
“I’m disappointed we lost; this is a good group of kids,” he said.
If Mason sticks around, I’m betting he figures out how to make that record 3-2.
There’s never any guarantee in high school sports. Mason or his defensive coordinator, Roydon Richards, could consider other jobs in the offseason with how much they’ve achieved in a short period of time here.
But the grass isn’t always greener. If the goal is to win a state title, this is the place to stay. It seems weird for City lifers to hear those words, but it’s true.
Class 5A is there for the taking as long as talented players are in the system, and from what I hear, that’s definitely the case. If not for extreme weather last Friday, it could have been this year, this week.
I’m sure Mason wants to win another state title, and if he did it in Michigan City, he could be considered the greatest high school football coach in Northwest Indiana history.
Be thankful he’s with the Wolves and make sure you let him know that the next time you see him around in the halls at MCHS.
Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at firstname.lastname@example.org or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.