FORT WAYNE | Leaders selflessly share the glory in victory and courageously absorb the blame in defeat.
Jake Raspopovich has come to define the term in Merrillville athletics, whether it's been on the football field or the basketball court.
The Pirates quarterback was his usual electric self in Friday's Class 5A Northern Semistate against Fort Wayne Snider at Wayne High School. He engineered a comeback that got Merrillville within three points of the Panthers with less than three minutes to go, but it was the plays that were left on the field that burdened him after the 42-39 loss.
"If I just played a little better, we could have won the game. We could be playing next week," Raspopovich said. "I look back on the things I could've improved on, it could've changed the score and game. Honestly, it wasn't my night. It was a bad night for me to have a bad game."
A bad game by Raspopovich standards would qualify as a career performance for a lot of signal-callers. Then again, we've all come to know he's not a lot of signal-callers.
Raspo completed 21 of 38 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for another 70. Aaron Dye caught eight passes for 137 yards and a score, but he may well have had twice that, and Raspopovich knew it, misfiring by clicks on their patented slant routes and deep balls that have often gone the distance the past 14 weeks.
"Almost every time we're right on I missed him a few times and that could've been the game," Raspopovich said. "My receivers made phenomenal catches. They made the plays for me. I've got to get the ball on them, no ifs, ands or buts."
Merrillville trailed 35-16 late in the first half but almost chased Snider down in the second half, as its defense tightened up and Raspopovich found his rhythm.
"I know my team needed me to step up," he said. "I had to start making throws. We executed a lot better in the second half."
In the end, Raspopovich may have boiled it down to making good on one more. In reality, there were plenty of near misses for the Pirates, who almost recovered a second-half onside kick, not to mention some huge conversions by Snider, which uses its tight ends unlike any team in Northwest Indiana.
"We were never going to give up. That was our mentality down to the last second," Raspopovich said. "We had a really good run. I'm proud of my team. We still wanted to reach our goal to win state."
The quarterback reflected the competitive spirit of his coach, who played the game to the final horn, taking his last two timeouts in the final 11 seconds.
"Our kids weren't giving up, so I wasn't going to give up either," Wells said. "We didn't play great in all phases of the game, but we found kids (this season) who found a way to try to win. You can't say they didn't give it their all. All year long, our motto was, 'Next man up.' Guys stepped in and played hard, and that's something I'm really proud of."
This column represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.