The road gets tougher

Photo by Scott AllenMichigan City and Valparaiso will be in the same football sectional the next seasons. The Wolves and Vikings won regionals in Class 5A and 6A, respectively, last season, and figure to be the top contenders in the Duneland Athletic Conference again this season. The sectional also includes La Porte and Munster.

The football just got real in Class 5A Sectional, as in real tough.

A tweak in the success factor prompted a domino effect that bumped Valparaiso down from 6A a year earlier than expected, putting the Vikings into a four-team sectional with Michigan City and La Porte.

"With what we've accomplished in three years, we're always looking toward winning a conference championship and a sectional championship," Wolves coach Phil Mason said. "To win the Duneland, we've got to beat them. Now to win a sectional, we've got to beat them. They're our game. For two years, we have to figure out how to beat them four times. That's going to be tough for either team. Obviously, it's a great challenge for both schools."

In the original projections, Valpo, the defending DAC champion and a 6A regional champ, was slated to move to 5A in 2020. Then in the spring, the Indiana High School Athletic Association modified its success factor so that teams which have gone up a class will remain in that class if they accumulate two postseason points in the subsequent two-year cycle, one less than previously. Points are awarded based on titles (one for a sectional, two for a regional and so on).

With the change in the formula, Fort Wayne Snider, which was slated to move back to 5A, will remain in 6A, and Indianapolis Cathedral, which was projected to be in 4A, stays in 5A. As a result, Zionsville climbs to 6A this season and Valpo drops to 5A. If that's not confusing enough, in 2020, Zionsville will return to 5A and be replaced in 6A by Elkhart, the consolidation of Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial.

"I don't know what the success factor all is," Mason said. "All they're going to do down there is whatever they need to do to keep certain things in check, to keep Cathedral where they want them. Why did they change the success factor points? They weren't happy with where the Indy-area teams lined up. They don't care about us. They're not looking at that. I don't know what the answer is."

In a video discussing the moves, IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox said, "We feel the changes continue to promote the success factor and create better competitions in our football championships as well as our other sports."

La Porte coach Jeremy Lowery is new to northern Indiana, but already has a pretty good idea who the big dogs are.

"If it was a perfect world, I'm not crazy about playing people twice, but it is what it is," Lowery said. "(Valpo's) a great football program. They had a great year last year. Their new coaching staff has now been there long enough that they've really got their feet underneath them. They've got their kids buying into everything they're doing and obviously it's showing on the football field. (Michigan City's) a very well-coached football team. They've been on a roll. They've got a bunch of confidence right now. It's going to be another one of those possible rematches."

That said, Lowery isn't going to lose any sleep over it, at least not yet.

"We're not going to get too caught up in everybody else," he said. "That's kind of our mentality, it's all about us. We're going to worry about all the things we can do to be a better football team. We're not going to get too caught up in the uncontrollables.”

Michigan City enjoyed a relatively clear path to the semistate last season, blowing out Munster, La Porte and Concord on its way to New Palestine. Enrollment increases have brought perennial powers Mishawaka and Fort Wayne Dwenger into 5A as well. A slight consolation is defending state champion New Palestine now comes out of the south.

"Looking at where everybody bumps, teams are going back and forth, north and south," Mason said. "I don't feel slighted. That's what the enrollment is. Fans love it for Northwest Indiana, looking at Michigan City and Valpo. It's a pretty unique situation having a team that was in the 5A semistate and a team that was in the 6A semistate in the same sectional. It's just disheartening for some fan bases to have two of the better teams playing in the (same) sectional."

There's not much Mason hasn't done as Wolves coach, but one is beating Valpo, which is 3-0 against City in his tenure.

"They're a team we want to play, a team we want to beat," he said. "They have some good guys back, we have some good guys back. They lost some and so did we. It's a great matchup. It's not like we got beat 35-0. We should've won two years ago and last year, it was 7-7 in the third quarter."

If Mason can glean a positive from the scenario, the Wolves play Valpo in week four, so there's not going to be any issue of gamesmanship with either team holding anything back in the likely event of a second meeting.

"They have things they do well and we have things we do well," Mason said. "It's just hard to beat a dominant program twice in a year."

— Zach Eldridge contributed to this story.

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