Merrillville comes back to beat Bulldogs 22-12 in Sectional opener

A Special Report by Mark Smith



Junior center Nick Winter (66) gets set to start the play as the Bulldogs battle the Pirates in the first half. (All photos by Mark Smith.)
Senior guard Nate Hanlon (52) looks to take out Merrillville's Keith Green on this first half run. The Bulldogs and Pirates were tied 6-6 at halftime last Friday.
Merrillville's DJ Wilkins (5) threw three interceptions but he also threw three touchdowns in the Pirates' 22-12 win over Crown Point.
Zach Stewart (19) holds and Cameron Pfeifer (28) blocks for kicker Brad Kurtz (10) on one of his two field goals last Friday at Merrillville.
Senior Trent Schoenborn (18) goes all out for this second quarter pass last Friday while Merrillville's Anthony Tucker (15) tries to stay with him.
CP's Artie Equihua (14) gained 99 yards of 30 carries, coming off injury last Friday. The CP senior quarterback finished with over 500 yards rushing in five games.
Sophomore linebacker Caden Watson (54) rushes Merrillville quarterback DJ Wilkins (5) last Friday in the 6A Sectional 1 semifinals.
CP's Jake Yelich (77) tries to stay in front of Merrillville star lineman Shawn Streck (55) last Friday in the sectional semifinals. Streck played six games against Crown Point in four years.
CP's Jesse Martin (21) runs away from Merrillville's JoRale Wheeler (8) last Friday in the playoff game at Merrillville. Martin end his senior season with over 600 yards rushing for Crown Point.
CP linebacker Donald Schuch (25) eyes quarterback DJ Wilkins (5) at Merrillville last Friday. Schuch ended his junior season with over 100 tackles in 10 games.
(All photos by Mark Smith.)

Copyright © 2015 and Meyer Multimedia Services, a division of Meyer Broadcasting Corp.  All rights reserved.
Revised: October 28, 2015 .

Team 1 2 3 4 F
MERRILLVILLE (6-4) 0 6 0 6 12
CROWN POINT (1-9) 0 6 16 0 22

Friday, October 23, 2015 -  64 degrees, light rain - Class 6A, Sectional 1 Semifinal at MERRILLVILLE, Ind.

1st QtrNo scoring.
2nd Qtr
Brad Kurtz, 21-yard field goal. 42-yard drive, 8 plays. 9:40 left.
Brad Kurtz, 35-yard field goal. 4 plays after interception by Cameron Watson at the Merillville 20. 7:41.

MERRILLVILLE (6-6) Kameron Jackson, 40-yard pass from DJ Wilkins. 40-yard drive, 2 plays. 2-point pass failed. 3:34 left.
3rd Qtr
MERRILLVILLE (6-14) James Kirklen, 40-yard pass from DJ Wilkins. 64-yard drive, 4 plays. Myles Taylor 2-point run. 5:45 left.
MERRILLVILLE (6-22) James Walters, 23-yard pass from DJ Wilkins. One play after interception by Adam Neal at the CP 23-yard-line. 2-point pass DJ Wilkins to Carl Stokes. 2:48.
4th Qtr: CROWN POINT (12-22) Artie Equihua, 38-yard run. 64-yard drive, 8 plays. 2-point run failed. 10:10 left.



MERRILLVILLE (23 carries, 65 yards): Isaiah Thornton (HB) 11 carries, 43 yards; Myles Taylor (HB) 5 carries, 8 yard; DJ Wilkins (QB) 9 carries, 12 yards (one sack).
CROWN POINT (39 carries, 139 yards, TD): Jesse Martin (HB) 9-40 yards; Artie Equihua (QB) 30-99 yards, TD.


MERRILLVILLE: DJ Wilkins (QB) 14 of 25, 225 yards, 3 TDs, 3 interceptions; CROWN POINT: Artie Equihua (QB) 7 of 19, 43 yards, ) TDs, 2 interceptions.

MERRILLVILLE: James Kirklen (WR) 3 catches, 73 yards, TD; James Walters (WR) 2-42 yards, TD; Isaiah Thornton (HB) 2-5 yards, Kameron Jackson (WR) 1-40 yards, TD; Carl Stokes (WR) 2-15 yards, Myles Taylor (HB) 1-5; Kejuan Thomas (WR) 3-45.
CROWN POINT: Shane McCormack (WR) 3 catches, 39 yards, Trent Schoenborn (WR) 2-5 yards, Jesse Martin (HB) 2 (Minus-1 yard).

MERRILLVILLE (4) 3 interceptions, fumble; CROWN POINT (3) 2 interceptions, fumble.
Fumble recovery: Zach Stewart (CP).
Interceptions: Cameron Watson (CP) 2, Trent Schoenborn (CP); Anthony Tucker (MV), Adam Neal (MV).


MERRILLVILLE (10-23-2015) When Merrillville defeated Crown Point 40-0 back in September, the thought was that this version of the Pirates can't be 40 points better than the Bulldogs. They’re probably 10 points better. Merrillville broke a 6-6 halftime tie Friday and advanced to the Class 6A Sectional 1 championship game with a 22-12 win over Crown Point.

Merrillville quarterback DJ Wilkins threw three interceptions, but he also tossed three touchdowns to help get his team past the arch-rival Bulldogs (1-9) for the second time this season.

The Bulldogs led early and rallied late, but Crown Point’s lack of offense was too much to overcome even with the return from injury of senior quarterback Artie Equihua, who carried 30 times for an unofficial 99 yards.

The difference in CP and Merrillville on offense was Wilkins ability to throw to a variety (7 different Pirates caught passes Friday) of pass catchers. He didn’t let the early interceptions bother him.

“He got hit pretty hard on a couple of his touchdown throws,” said Merrillville’s first year coach Brad Seiss. “But he hung in there and he got better. We’ve got to play much better. Obviously Portage took it to Lake Central tonight (in the other Class 6A Sectional 1 semifinal) and that shows you just can't look at what you did (during the regular season). We might have fallen victim to that tonight knowing that we beat Crown Point pretty handily during the regular season.”

Crown Point lost their last three games by scores of 14-0, 20-19 and 22-12.

“I thought we did grow as the season went on,” said Kevin Enright. “From where we were, we came out and played hardnosed football. That’s all you can ask.”

“Artie’s a grinder. We’re proud of the effort he’s given us and Crown Point high school. Was he 100%? No. But I don't think most of the guys were 100%. He came out and he gave it all he had and that’s all we ask. We wish him and all the seniors the best.”

This was not perfect football. On the fifth play of the game, DJ Wilkins’ pass was tipped and eventually intercepted by CP senior Trent Schoenborn. Crown Point used the field position to take an early lead as junior kicker Brad Kurtz booted two second quarter field goals. The first one wobbled and bounced in off the crossbar from 21 yards out. The second one boomed high and through the uprights from 35 yards away. Kurtz, a star CP soccer player who had been kicking off all season, tried a 39-yard field goal on the final play of the first half but it sailed wide.

On the first possession of the third quarter, Merrillville (6-4) and Wilkins had his third pass intercepted. But CP, which ran the ball with Equihua and Jesse Martin on most plays, did not gain a first down and punted the first three times they had the ball in the second half.

Wilkins, Merrillville’s all time leading TD tosser, threw touchdown passes for 40 (to James Kirklen) and 23 (to James Walters) yards to give the home team a 22-6 lead. CP’s Artie Equihua had passes intercepted on back-to-back possessions late in the third quarter, but Merrillville’s attack was buried under a wave of flags. The Pirates drew 12 penalties (not counting violations that were declined) in the game including seven in the fourth quarter.

Maybe 200 fans including about 100 on the Crown Point side, mostly stayed to the end in the 60-degree weather. As a light second half rain started to fall, the game, and CP’s season, dragged to its conclusion.

Equihua’s 38-yard run cut the lead to 10 with 10 minutes to play. But the Bulldogs could not score on their final two possessions.

“We battled all year,” said Enright, standing in the rain after the game. “It could have been easy to just to end it tonight and not compete but we didn't do that. We played hard week in and week out especially here at the end of the season.”

“If you judge success by wins and losses, it wasn’t a success. But the group continued to grow and mature. We relied on a lot of young people and maybe they weren’t ready. But we grew this year. If you look at success and define it, you watch the growth."

“If you only care about wins and losses, that can go south early. Kids stop showing up to practice and putting in the effort. But this group didn’t do that. And we’re proud of that.”

“We’ve been in most of our games. Have we made some plays this year? Yes. But not enough to win. For whatever reason, we didn’t make plays when we had to. Could be for a number of different reason. Kids at different spots. Injuries. We aren’t making excuses. We just didn’t do it, but we tried really, really hard.”

It would be an excuse to say that CP, for the third season now, exists in a four team sectional that is very unforgiving. Odds are 2-to-1 that the Bulldogs open the sectional with Merrillville or Lake Central. Three years into the new four-team sectionals in Class 6A, CP has not advanced beyond the sectional level. The new reality is that either Lake Central, Crown Point or Merrillville will be eliminated on opening night of the state tournament. One has to go immediately. Every year. And CP will now almost certainly play either Lake Central or Merrillville (or both) twice every season.

That is going to limit the years they advance in the state tournament. It's not an excuse. It's just a fact. Since Class 6A was initiated. CP has drawn LC or Merrillville all three years.

“We like it,” said Enright. “On a personal level, I like it. Neighborhood rivalries. Kids know each other. They live close together. They interact during the off season. We don’t ever mind playing Merrillville twice a year. Or Lake Central. It's good football.”

DOG NOTES: Fridays’ game was the 21st meeting of CP and Merrillville in 12 seasons (going back to 2004). The Pirates have won 14 of those 20 games. Merrillville has eliminated CP from the sectional three times in the last four years.

Merrillville’s quarterback DJ Wilkins’ 57 career touchdown passes is a school record. He has passed for over 6,500 yards. Pirate senior lineman Shawn Streck sacked the QB three times, giving him 26 for his career, also a Merrillville record.

The Bulldogs did play a lot of underclassmen as the season went on. For 2016, CP returns center Nick Winter (6-1, 245), wide receive Shane McCormack (6-6, 185), tight end Ben Fridrich (6-2, 210) and QB Grayson Lynk, who was 59 of 129 for 427 yards in five starts this fall.

Defenders eligible to return in 2016 include linebackers Donald Schuch (6-2, 215) and Caden Watson (6-1, 185), ends Ethan Wood and Emas King (6-0, 215) and defensive backs Zach Stewart and Tyler Gomez. Kickers Brad Kurtz, who booted two field goals Friday, and James Priddy, both return.

This was just the third losing season for Crown Point football in 10 years.