Viking football fans should enjoy this ride
My Two Cents: By Paul Jankowski, former sports writer/editor
Some of you know that I was a long-time sports writer, but I haven’t written an official article in more than 3 1/2 years. This year’s Vikings inspired me to write a column, something along the lines of what I would maybe write if I was working for a newspaper. But probably too Valpo-biased.
So for my writing “fans” who sometimes say they wish I would write again (I do appreciate it, but not likely to happen), here’s a sample.
My Two Cents: By Paul Jankowski, former sports writer/editor
History eventually repeats itself, in a way. The problem is, often too much time passes waiting for good stuff to happen again.
It has been eight years since Valparaiso High School has had a football team good enough to advance to the semistate round of the state tournament. That’s much longer than any diehard Viking fans should have to wait. The state tournament began in 1973, and Valpo won regionals in 1985, 1986, 1989, 2001 (what happened in the 1990s?), 2002 and 2010.
Of course, that doesn’t count 1975 when the Vikings won the Class 3A state (big school) championship. Back then, the tournament was in its infancy and the IHSAA still hadn’t designed it in a similar fashion as the tradition-rich basketball tournament. It was nearly impossible to even make the playoffs. A team had to basically storm through the regular season undefeated to have a shot at a state title, and if I recall correctly even a perfect record didn’t guarantee a playoff berth.
But those Valpo teams of the mid-1970s were outstanding. I was 8 years-old in 1975 when the Big Green Machine defeated Carmel 14-13 at a frigid Viking Field for the 3A state championship. I didn’t attend the game, but I couldn’t wait for the Vidette-Messenger newspaper to arrive so I could turn to the sports section and read about the Vikings.
That era of Valpo football is definitely the Golden Age. Head coach Tom Stokes is a legend, in part due to his mid-70s teams winning 31 consecutive games. The Vikings went 9-1 in 1974, losing only to Munster in the season opener. The 1975 squad went 12-0, topping off the state championship season with that win over Carmel that included star Mark Allen returning a punt for a touchdown. The 1976 team was just as good. Allen was a senior, but the Vikings lost in the Class 3A District I sectional to an outstanding Merrillville team that they had beaten during the regular season. The Pirates went on to win state.
It was a different world then, but here we are again.
Big, bad Carmel is returning to Viking Field. It’s not the first time since 1975, as the Greyhounds visited Valpo in Week Two of the 2012 season as part of a two-year deal put together by former coach Mark Hoffman. But it’s the first time with something important on the line.
I write this to encourage every able-bodied community member and especially the students to support this year’s team by attending Friday’s game. Sure, it’s going to be cold and uncomfortable. Bundle up and enjoy, because these kids are going to need the whole city behind them.
Certainly the Vikings are underdogs and the kids know it. But the 1975 team was as well. Carmel had All-American quarterback Mark Hermann, who would go on to play at Purdue. But the Greyhounds missed an extra point (it may have been blocked), Valpo kicker John Poncher made both of his and the Vikings shocked the state.
I wouldn’t feel as good about this game if it were at Carmel. But the tables are turned. It’s great that Valpo has a good team in a year in which the 6A tournament was designed for the winner of the lower numbered sectional to host the semistate if both regional winners were either at home or on the road for the regional. In other words, Valpo wins due to the luck of the draw. The stars aligned nicely.
I also feel better about hosting due to what happened in 2012. Honestly, that was a bad Valpo team that finished 3-7. But the Vikings played their best game of the season and only lost 21-20, one year after losing at Carmel 49-0. That 2011 team was better, record-wise, at 5-6. Playing at Carmel is a different story.
I’ve seen just about every Valpo team play since the late 1970s. It’s easy to remember the good teams, and maybe easy to forget the bad teams. Some of you who may read this were players, and I’m sure you would agree that the wins and losses fade but the memories of playing with your friends lives on. But winning is always a lot more fun. I want to throw out some names in case any of today’s players find this. Learning history is important.
After 1975, the best team was led by the class of 1986. The kids know their defensive coordinator Sam Bernardi was a linebacker on the 1985 team that advanced to state and suffered a 41-7 loss to Warren Central, led by QB Jeff George. Jeff’s son is now Warren Central’s quarterback, but we’ll worry about that (hopefully) next week. I will say that there is a HUGE group of Class of 1986 “kids” who support this year’s team. Receiver/kicker/DB Frank Wilson goes to all the games. QB Steve Letnich sits with a group that includes Mark Hardwick, Greg Walls, Joe Baldwin and maybe some others. They love Valpo football, and they will be there supporting their classmate Sam and the team. They bleed Valpo green, the fire still burns and many of them would love to be out on that field playing again – even at age 50.
Jumping ahead to 2001 – around the time most of the kids on this team were born – Valpo finally made it to state again. You all know Jeff Samardzija was the star of the team. You also know him to be a baseball pitcher with a five-year, $90 million contract with the Giants who formerly played for the Cubs and White Sox. Jeff was the best receiver in school history, and was outstanding at Notre Dame where he set a record for career touchdown receptions. He made the right decision to play professional baseball, but he was sure fun to watch on the football field.
There has been a lot of disappointing seasons and state-tournament results since then. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy this team and this moment.
This team has one of the best defensive units I’ve seen in my 40 or so years of watching Valpo football. Defensive end Cooper Jones, 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, is a monster. And he’s only a sophomore. The Bukur twins are outstanding. Reece Crossin is a terror in the defensive backfield. DB Noah Beller is a head hunter. Anyone who saw him destroy a blocker and make the tackle on a Penn kickoff return a couple weeks ago knows what I mean.
Offensively, it’s nice to a have a 6-foot-5 QB in CJ Opperman. It will be great having him back next year, as he’s only a junior. I’ve loved watching Jesse Harper run and catch the ball the last two years. It’s been great to see Jackson Kurth return to the team and develop into a solid running back who punishes the first defender to hit him every time. And that line is huge, with 6-5, 320 junior left tackle Ben Scott leading that group. Again, just a junior.
I can’t say enough about the job first-year coach Bill Marshall has done. To say the way he ended up taking over the program was unusual is an understatement. I was looking forward to VHS grad Steven Mueller getting his shot as head coach. I know the kids liked him, but there were too many folks in town who don’t “get” football that led to Steven’s departure. I imagine his mark is on this team and also with Bill.
I’ve known Marshall since his playing days at Valparaiso University. I did a feature story on him (link below), and I remember thinking at the time he was one of the smartest kids I’d ever spoken with. I dug up that story recently. He was elected a captain of the VU football team as a freshman. Think about that. He’s a born leader and he played on some very good Crusader teams.
Marshall has done an outstanding job of picking up the pieces from the mess he inherited at the end of the 2017 season.
Personally, I don’t know any of these kids. But I’ve enjoyed watching them and would love to see them make it to the Dome. Just getting there would be almost the equivalent of winning state, and you would have to rank this squad among the best in school history. Of course, right behind the 1970 undefeated team. Right, Rob Harkel?
Special thanks By Paul Jankowski, former sports writer/editor for sharing his thoughts on RRSN.com.