MICHIGAN CITY — In the end, Phil Mason was right.
Before the start of the high school football, the Michigan City coach talked about how the team’s athleticism could carry them a long way. He also quietly expressed concerns about senior leadership and what would happen if fortunes went sideways.
Mason proved prescient on that as the Wolves were never quite the same after a week four loss to Valparaiso.
“We definitely had some higher hopes for this season, but unfortunately it didn’t fall into place for us,” he said after Friday’s 14-10 loss to La Porte.
The lingering questions are many. Was the loss of Marquan Hurt after week three too much for the defense to overcome? Was the team fractioned by the turn of events? Was City simply not as good as the hype?
The answers to all of those could be yes. Yes, there’s no disputing the impact of Hurt’s absence. Only a handful of teams in the state can subtract a Division-I talent and not be significantly hampered. Yes, there was some separation on a squad that reportedly expressed their support of Hurt by writing his number 6 on their cleats. And yes, City’s skill talent on offense wasn’t enough to overcome the unstable quarterback situation.
“There were some holes that we weren’t able to patch as far as different players in different spots that we needed to be better at,” Mason said. “We tried to manipulate that situation, but we weren’t capable of getting that done. We play a young quarterback (Gio Laurent) who showed signs of being really good at times. Other times, he showed signs of being a young quarterback.”
Mason didn’t question the effort versus La Porte. The defense played well, giving up one big play, which had was an issue in the final two games, and was victimized by a short field and its own aggressiveness on the go-ahead score. Laurent, who flashed his potential two weeks earlier versus Crown Point, looked more like he did earlier in the season, and the offense struggled.
“I thought our kids played hard,” Mason said. “You can’t take anything away from La Porte. I think they’ve played pretty hard the whole year. It’s definitely a feather in their cap. I thought we had a good week. We tried to keep it low-key and simple. I thought we were fired up and I thought we had a good plan. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. It was a rough ending. It would have been for either team. I thought we made a few plays, they just made a few more.”
No one can question the resilience of a two-win Slicers team that was crushed in each of its first four games under new coach Jeremy Lowery, but has been competitive over the remainder of the season.
“There’s no magic wand,” Lowery said outside a raucous La Porte locker room. “When you connect at a higher level than football, you’re able to overcome things. I said on day one we were going to build this thing on trust. Those relationships are what it’s all about. We bonded very quickly. We promised ‘em it would happen, we just couldn’t tell them when. We’ve been beat up physically, mentally beat up, emotionally beat up, but our kids just went back to work and believed. There’s only one way to get there and that’s through hard stinkin’ work, sweat, blood and tears, and that’s what they’ve done. They haven’t blinked. You come to our practices, you wouldn’t think we were a team that lost all those games.”
In a quiet City locker room just a short pass away, a subdued Mason was reflective rather than critical.
“It was a tough loss, a tough year,” he said. “I’m never glad the season’s over. Never. I want to keep coaching kids. I wanted to give our seniors an opportunity to play and be successful. All I do is coach football. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t have any hobbies. I just hope our seniors understand that unfortunately they’re probably going to face something worse than this in their life and this helps them deal with it. Unless you’re one of the lucky two, this is going to end sad no matter what.”
In breaking its four-game losing streak against the Wolves, the Slicers are tasked with the Herculean chore of facing Valparaiso. On the other side of the county, City looks to a future that for the first time in a few years comes with no reasonable assurance of success.