Football stock
Jonathan Miano, The Times

Those who stay will be champions.

The old football adage shows up on the backs of T-shirts and on locker room walls.

At its core, the cliché speaks to the commitment, dedication and perseverance that are akin to success in the game, if not the actual titles.

"There's heart and character in these kids," Clark coach Nick Testa said Saturday. "People just haven't taken the time to get to know them, to actually see it."

It had been 27 games since the Pioneers tasted victory, a streak dating back to 2014, when the current seniors were freshmen. Just staying and grinding through all the physical and mental toll that such struggles entail speaks volumes about them.

"Our big message to the kids was stay together, be a family," Testa said. "Kids at school are going to try to tear you apart. Unfortunately, you're going to have adults tell you you're no good. I was kind of worried when we gave up (74), then (69) and another (63) that kids were going to say it's not worth it. It's a credit to the kind of kids they are that they hung in there and fought. We told them when everybody starts putting in the work and the time, the results will come."

It happened Friday when Clark ended the frustration with a 28-21 win over E.C. Central at Fort Pioneer.

"It's pretty special," Testa said. "Every coach remembers his first victory and mine stood out a little more. It means a lot to me, but I've had success playing and coaching. More importantly, it's about the kids. To see those seniors crying, kids who have never won a game in high school, it means that much to them. That's what it's all about."

Dayshawn Rice energized the Pioneers with a 79-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game, but Clark trailed 14-6 in the third quarter. It ran off 22 unanswered points, capped by a fourth-quarter recovery of a fumbled punt snap in the end zone. The Cardinals got within seven but didn't seriously threaten again.

"The thing I was most proud of was what we did when we got behind," Testa said. "A lot of former Clark teams would've folded, said, here we go again, and we'd lose. They didn't do it."

Testa went into the game thinking Clark could compete. It lost 38-23 in week two to Lake Station and hung with Hammond for a half last week before falling apart.

"A lot of teams are physically dominant over us right now, like Lowell, Highland or Whiting were," he said. "(East Chicago) was more on the same plane. I thought once we got through those bigger, stronger teams, we'd be able to hang better with guys."

A standout receiver at Lake Central in the 90s, Testa was an assistant at Wheeler when he took the Clark job back in August. He heard from ex-Indians coaches Elmer Britton, Scott Freckelton and Bob Komara, who all talked about the tradition Clark had years ago, the talented, hard-nosed kids who were there. It was just a matter of getting them back on the field on that end of 119th Street.

"We know there were kids who left to go to the other school (Whiting), who didn't want to be part of a program that wasn't winning," Testa said. "You want to develop a winning culture, but when you're taking over a team that had 16 kids at the end of last year and there's talk of shutting down the football program, your main goal is to just get kids out. Once we get a full team, then we can start teaching, start getting in the weight room."

Numbers stand consistently between 37 and 41, a huge step in the right direction. Players recruited classmates. It's tough being a football coach who isn't a teacher and Testa gives a lot of credit to principal Robert Wilson and assistant Dave Verta, the last Clark coach to have a winning season in 2010, for helping in any way they could.

"Anything I needed, I could go to them," Testa said. "They're just as invested as we are in the program. This is great for them, too."

With Gavit and West Side, both 1-5, next up, there's confidence that it won't be nearly as long between wins in Robertsdale. When Testa tells the Pioneers there are better days ahead, they know it's not just coach speak.

"Two-and-a-half years is a long time," he said. "To see these kids who stayed around get a win, it's awesome. They believed. They followed the process. They bought into what we're teaching, the values we're trying to instill, and all the seniors led the way."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.

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Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.