HAMMOND | The Morton Governors went 7-6 last autumn. It was the most losses the program had had since 2004. Yet, the Govs got hot at the right time and won their third straight sectional title.
Such a streak is almost unheard of from a city school these days in Indiana.
En route to the season record, Morton played two up-and-coming city powers: West Side and E.C. Central.
"Both of those teams had more skill than we did," Morton coach Roy Richards said. "Both had freaks all over the field."
On Sept. 28, though, Morton beat the Cougars 35-20. Then, on Oct. 26, Richards defeated the Cardinals 50-28 in the sectional semifinal. A stark reality hit Richards walking off the field after both of those smoke-stack wins.
"Those two teams had great individual talent," he said, "and that's what we used to be. I'm glad we're not anymore."
Richards was on E.C.'s staff in the early 1990s when the Cards were loaded with D-I talent and ranked No. 1 in the state. But E.C. could not win a sectional championship and still hasn't.
Richards took over the program in 1994 and stayed there until 1997. He had success. He sent many to college, but he went 0-4 in sectional play, losing to the programs with nicer cars.
Then, after being fired, he went to Morton. The high-flying offense continued. Points were scored in bunches, but when the money games in late autumn came, the Govs were found penniless.
Sick speed, super athleticism didn't mean much without strength and grit up front. Richards' entire philosophy changed after several beatings against teams like Griffith and Andrean.
"Urban football is more about style and flash," Richards said. "Suburban football is more about wins and losses. If we threw for 300 yards and lost we felt we had to find a way to throw for 400.
"But we still lost."
In 2005, everything changed. The staff stopped focusing on the speed. They started putting all their attention on the big kids who could do some damage at a buffet.
Morton beat defending state champion Andrean in the sectional opener, pounded Hammond and then went to Griffith and gave the Panthers all they could handle before falling 24-21 in the sectional championship.
"We broke through in 2005," Richards said. "That's when we figured it out. We beat legit teams at their own game."
From 2004 through 2008 Griffith ended Morton's season five straight times. The antithesis of power, suburban football, though, lost in 2009 in the semifinal and Morton beat Hobart to win its first sectional title.
The next fall was historic, as Morton advanced to the Class 4A semistate. The string of sectional titles has not ended.
In 1965 Morton won a mythical state championship under the old system of voting, where the champs were not decided on the field. In the late '90s, though, the Govs had the state's longest losing streak at 22 games.
Richards took over the next season and the slow crawl up the hill began.
"I was talking to Lowell coach Kirk Kennedy one day and I said, 'It has to be easier practicing what you do than what we do,'" Richards said. "He laughed. We changed. We started to compete and then we started to win."
He has 15 solid lineman this season who spent much of the winter, spring and summer in the weight room. That's what was going on at E.C. in the early '90s. That's what has gotten Morton over the "tallest midget in the circus" opinion of city football.
When Morton drove to E.C. Central last October to play the Cardinals, there was no doubt that the Govs' O line was going to dominate, which it did.
"The emphasis on our position has grown over the years," senior Duncan Murphy said. "The older guys taught me when I was young about how I had to be physical. That's how you build a program. We get a lot of respect from our QBs and running backs.
"They know they couldn't do what they do without us doing our job."
When asked if the girls in the school have taken a liking to the linemen, Richards just laughed.
"No, they probably notice Torey (Armstrong), Devin (Mingo) and Kenny (Coleman) first," Richards said. "The girls like the guys who score touchdowns. But the guys who score touchdowns like the guys up front who are opening a hole for them."
Senior Zach Brown isn't huge. He stands 6-foot and is 230. He would be dwarfed by most Duneland Athletic Conference linemen, but he is strong, quick and tough. Brown's taken one week off since last year's loss at Mishawaka in the regional.
"We know what we have to do to be successful," Brown said. "I want to beat the guy in front of me every snap on every Friday night. I want our team to be good, like we've been. So it has to happen."