ST. JOHN | Gelen Robinson rightfully has no recollection of the last time Lake Central won a sectional because it was in 1999.
His memory of 2002 isn’t much better, but that was the last time Lake Central beat Merrillville. After that sectional victory, the Indians went on to lose to the Pirates 16 times in a row.
Robinson does, however, have a sharp recall of a play from the last time Merrillville and Lake Central met in the postseason.
Two years ago Robinson picked up a fumble at midfield at Merrillville in the sectional opener and was running unimpeded toward the end zone when the whistle blew and the officials said the Pirates player was down before the fumble.
Merrillville won that game 30-24.
For an athlete that seldom takes a loss in any of his three sports, the loss stung.
"That hurt real bad, it hurt for a long time," Robinson said.
Now the hurt is gone. Robinson had two sacks and recovered two of Merrillville’s five lost fumbles, and Lake Central ended its Merrillville misery and sectional famine all at once with an emphatic 31-0 victory over the visiting Pirates Friday night in the Class 6A Sectional 1 final at the Burial Grounds.
The Indians (9-2) host Penn (11-0) next week in the regional.
"It doesn't hurt anymore,” Robinson said. “I can't put into words what this means, what this feels like. Our team won this championship and it's the greatest feeling in the world."
The cold and rain played into Lake Central’s favor because it slowed Merrillville’s vaunted speed-based offense and allowed Lake Central’s defense to stymie the out-of-sorts Pirates and hold them to 42 net yards rushing and 71 passing.
“I didn’t want to go my senior year without beating Merrillville, and that would have been the 17th loss to Merrillville, consecutively, so we definitely did not want to go out on that note, and we didn’t,” Robinson said.
Lake Central has been playing stellar defense all season, but the Indians were not turning many turnovers into scores. That was not the case Friday, as the L.C. defense returned two turnovers for touchdowns and scored 24 points total off six Merrillville turnovers.
Coach Brett St. Germain challenged Robinson before the game inside the school, asking the reigning two-time Times Defensive Player of the Year to find another gear and become a champion. St. Germain asked Robinson to take over the game defensively.
“Coach told me I had to step up, and I definitely took that personally in a clear way, and I tried to take it to another level, and that’s what happened,” Robinson said. “He told me that this was the game I had to step up, and if I go all out we’d win this game, and I took that to heart.”
On a night when some communities were still celebrating Halloween, Robinson wasn’t the only defensive monster for L.C., but his backside pursuit, his relentless ball-hawking and his disruptions in the backfield were major catalysts in destroying Merrillville’s win streak.
C.J. Lessentine played possessed in the middle, Trevor Miller came up with a big fumble, and Logan Lambert recovered a fumble that squirted 20 yards backward into the end zone for the game’s final touchdown.
Alec Olund, who spent most of last season under center as the team’s starting quarterback, has been all over the field for the Indians this season. His 30-yard pick-six with 5:34 to go in the third quarter allowed some of the coldest, wettest fans to get a jump on traffic with the Indians up 24-0.
“Alec was eager to play Merrillville again, and I think it was nice for Alec because he was ready to the challenge, accepted the challenge and played well,” St. Germain said. “I think that’s a testament to our kids.”
Ethan Darter found Antwan Davis for a 21-yard touchdown for a 17-0 halftime lead, and Brandon Scott carried 27 times for 111 yards and the first touchdown for the Indians.
Merrillville’s Bryant Isabell carried 21 times for 57 yards, and sophomore quarterback DJ Wilkins was 6-for-25 passing.
“Hats off to Brett and his staff,” Merrillville coach Zac Wells said. “They did a great job preparing their kids tonight, and they came out and played really hard and really well.
“Their early offense hurt us a bit because it put us behind the 8-ball.”