The RENEGADE 'Magnificent-7':
2017 NW Indiana High School Football Final Poll
... and a look ahead to 2018

A Special Report by Mark Smith



Halfback Tyler Wildman (32) will be a senior as Lowell tries for a 5th consecutive sectional championship this fall. (Photo by Mark Smith)

LOWELL (01-01-2018) I've always thought that the difference between losing in the state championship game and losing in the semistate game is a lot more than one game.

And that's true.

A state finalist gets to play in the giant Lucas Oil Arena, the National Football League home of the Indianapolis Colts. You get to play on state wide TV.

The teams is described in those little 'program' booklets the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) prints up for all the sports finals. Your coach gets interviewed on state wide TV. The announcers talk about your home town and almost everybody you know gets to see you and your team play.

Still, when you lose the state championship game like Lowell did 14-7 to East Central, you drive home wonedring if your school is ever going to get another chance. Lowell's been to four state Class 4A finals in 12 years, but the future is unpredictable. The Devils could go back next year or in 2019. They might not go back for 40 years.

When Lake Central reached the 1993 state title game and lost to Bloomington South, I would not have bet you that they would not reach another state title game in 24 years. Griffith won the 1997 state title and has not yet been back. Valparaiso lost the 2002 state Class 5A title game and has yet to return.

Merrillville won in 1976 and has not been back to the finals since. That's 44 years for arguably the top big school football program in the area during the last three decades.

To me, teams should cherish sectional championships. There are tough sectionals and ones that are not-so-tough, but beating local teams in championship competition is under-rated. And if you won your sectional this season, you can probably win it again next year no matter how good your team is or how good anybody thinks they are.

You don't have to wait 24 or 44 years for another chance.

I want to say, as I always do, that the five teams listed here are five 'teams to watch,' not necessarily the top five for 2018. Just teams that will have interesting seasons.

See you in the fall.

1. (6A) Valparaiso (8-2)
2016 (5-5), 2015 (7-3), 2014 (2-8), 2013 (3-7), 2012 (3-7)


VALPO I like Valparaiso as the top team in NW Indiana in 2018 - IF the coaching situation settles down. The Vikings hired a new coach in the offseason and fired him a month later. I can't tell you exactly what's going on there. QB Jake Leffew, who missed most of 2017 with injury, will be back next season and he was 113 of 204 for 1,355 yards and nine TDs in 2016. Veteran Guard Ayden Bennett (5-10, 250) will lead the offensive line and there is speed in and multi-position ability in Jesse Harper (35 catches for 503 yards) and Reece Crossin, who played safety but also filled in at QB and ran for nine TDs. Defensively, Valpo allowed just 96 points in 10 games, although much of that defense graduates. The Vikings open on the road at 6A power Penn and 5A power Mishawaka. The Vikings won't go 8-1 in the regular season again, but I am optimistic that Valparaiso straightens things out on the coaching staff and they have another strong season.


2. (3A) Andrean (8-4)
2016 (5-6), 2015 (7-4), 2014 (14-1), 2013 (15-0)


MERRILLVILLE The 59ers dominated sectional play in their return to Class 3A in 2017, but they lost big to top-ranked West Lafayette at the regional level. The 59ers should come back strong on both sides of the ball in the fall. Linebacker Cameron Williams should be ready to go after recording 15 quarterback sacks as a junior. Linebacker Ryan Walsh also had 75 tackles as an underclassman last season. QB Zack Merrill should return to lead the offense after completing 117 of 213 for 1,344 yards and 17 TDs as a junior in 2017. Nick Flesher caught 36 of those passes as a freshman in 2017.

Kicker JJ Wadas, another 2017 freshman, was 44 of 46 on extra points and 8-of-13 on field goals. The 2017 Andrean roster I have had just 18 seniors among 51 players. The 59ers will again benefit from playing a largely Class 4A and Class 5A regular season schedule and then entering the Class 3A state tournament. Here's a team I'm sure will be playing in November again. In fact, they figure to be the last Northwest Indiana team playing in November.


3. (6A) LaPorte (7-4)
2016 (9-2), 2015 (6-4), 2014 (8-6), 2013 (1-9), 2012 (1-9)


LaPORTE LaPorte graduates 1,500-yard rusher Drayson Nespo (229 carries, 1,589 yards), but they have a system that is going to continue to roll up big numbers on the ground. Final 2017 totals had the Slicers averaging 388.5 yards rushing per game and with returning backs Isaac Alexander (104 carries, 611 yards), Caleb Kuzdas (88 carries, 517 yards) and Derrick Merriweather (70 rushes, 416 yards) LaPorte could continue to be a ball control team. I do not know who the next LaPorte QB will be replacing two-year starter Nathan Lorenz. But they only asked Lorenz to throw 54 passes last season. It's a lot easier to find a good running and ballhandling QB than it is a good passer. Offensive tackle Brandon Seibert (6-3, 323) is back and the Slicers do have some large offensive line candidates.

Top tackler (13 tackles for loss) linebacker Noah Perez (5-10, 190) returns on defense and Landon Cerillos (6-3, 231) had nine tackles for loss as a freshman. But the Slicers gave up 30 points in five different games and that should not happen with a team that runs the ball as well as they do. But experience is returning on defense.

It takes a leap of faith to rate a team highly in pre-season when they don't have a returning quarterback. But LaPorte should have a winning season again in 2018. In the four-team Class 5A Sectional 9, the Slicers, Munster and Michigan City all have very real chances to win the sectional. But I think LaPorte has the runners to still be playing in November.


4. (4A) LOWELL (14-1)
2016 (9-5), 2015 (12-1), 2014 (8-5), 2013 (6-4), 2012 (5-5), 2011 (5-5)


LOWELL - The top-ranked Devils lost the Class 4A state title game 14-7 to East Central and while a lot of us thought Lowell was the better team going in, EC was better that day. What I liked about Lowell in 2017 was: They lived up to expectations. The defense they had was state championship caliber and they won 14 games to reach that title game. Lowell returns quarterback Ethan Igras (77 of 151, 1,416 yards, 13 TDs, 7 interceptions) and halfback Tyler Wildman (189 carries, 901 yards, 10 TDs). Back up quarterback Payton Scheriber can also play tight end but ... and I don't remember ever saying this before, but the Devils need to find some pass receivers. The Devils could actually have two good QBs, but all of their true wide receivers and tight ends graduate.

Defensively, line starters Chandler Austgen (11 tackles for loss) and Blake Jansky (10 QB sacks) return as well as linebacker Mike Langen (37 tackles). But there will be a half dozen first time starters on both sides of the ball. Defensive coordinator Derek Thompson, who coached up a group that allowed just 103 points in 14 games (a NW Indiana-best 7.3 points per game), leaves Lowell to step into his first head coaching job, signing on as the new coach at Kankakee Valley. KV comes to Lowell on September 14.

Lowell gets five of nine regular season games at home this fall, but the first two (Class 6A schools CP and Portage) and the last two (Hobart and Andrean) will be tough nights. But the returning QB and returners in the front seven on defense should lead a team that plays, on the hole, more difficult regular season opponents than they face in sectional play. The exception is Morton and the Devils should see Morton twice, the last time in Class 4A Sectional 17.


5. (4A) Morton (8-3)
2016 (4-7), 2015 (6-5), 2014 (10-2), 2013 (8-2)


HAMMOND Morton seems to be on the rise again. They lost only to state ranked teams Plymouth, Griffith (10-2) and Lowell (14-1) last season. The 35-22 loss to Griffith was a game they could have won. Morton wants to be big time. They replaced Plymouth on the schedule with 6A neighbor Lake Central. That's going to be a mismatch some years, but 2018 isn't one of them. The Governors return speed on defense including defensive back Tom Johnson (51 tackles, and 6 interceptions), linebacker Cassius Waite (94 tackles including 30 tackles for losses) and running back Eric Johnson (1,153 yards rushing and 16 TDs). Johnson, who missed the Plymouth game with an injury, could have a very big season in 2018.

Morton's schedule is front-loaded with Lowell, LC and Munster in the first four weeks. Like a lot of teams, the Governors have to develop a couple of offensive linemen over the summer. But if they can go 3-1 in those games (3 are at home), they'll roll into 4A Sectional 17 where they'll probably battle Lowell for the title.


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Revised: February 19, 2018 .