STEVE HANLON: And the winner is ...

2011-08-12T21:15:00Z 2012-08-31T00:24:52Z STEVE HANLON: And the winner is ...By Steve Hanlon Prep Beat nwitimes.com
August 12, 2011 9:15 pm  • 

MERRILLVILLE | From late October of 2005 until November of 2009, one question was asked by nearly every Region football fan. It was THE conversation at the late-night pizza parlors and the Saturday morning waffle shops.

Who would win between Class 5A Merrillville and 4A Lowell? Everyone had an opinion. Not one person had any middle ground.

Both programs made it to semistate games in 2005, 2007 and 2009. The Pirates went 0-3 in the much bigger, tougher class. The Red Devils went 3-0 and got to play on the biggest stage in Indianapolis, winning it all in '05.

After the loss to Evansville Reitz in 2009, then-coach Kirk Kennedy talked to Bucs coach Zac Wells about scrimmaging. Both programs were driving south for their regular season walk-throughs. Lowell was at Twin Lakes. Merrillville was at Lafayette Jeff.

"We thought it would be great to get the two programs together on the same field," Devils coach Keith Kilmer said.

The "dream matchup" finally happened Friday night at Demaree Stadium. Who actually won is open for debate, just like before. It was Merrillville's speed and toughness against Lowell's size and will.

It was well worth the ticket price.

"We know Lowell is a hard-nosed football team," said junior quarterback Jake Raspopovich, who started his first game under the lights. "Their defense is good. Their offense is good. I know we haven't played them in awhile but it was fun."

Back in the old Lake Suburban Conference days Lowell-Merrillville played every autumn. The last one was in 1975. The Pirates hold the all-time series lead at 19-9-3. But that was before both programs went to another level.

In the scrimmage format both varsity squads scored five touchdowns. The Devils' JV won 2-0 on some great running by sophomore George Fields. He wore No. 6. Some things never change.

So some will say Lowell beat Merrillville 7-5. They would be wrong. Who scores the most in a scrimmage is mostly meaningless. But the one thing Lowell did was show it could compete with the big boys.

"I think the (Northwest Crossroads Conference) champ could beat the (Duneland Athletic Conference) champ on one one night in most years," Lowell coach Keith Kilmer said. "But I know with our size we could not run the table in the DAC. We would get too banged up."

The reason this came about is both coaching staffs get along very well. Lowell defensive coordinator Derek Thompson coached at Merrillville for eight years. Merrillville assistant Joe O'Connell was Lowell's quarterback in the 1999 semistate game.

"This was a weird experience," said O'Connell, who was on Lowell's staff in 2009. "This was the first time ever I've been on the opposite side of the field than them. I was watching tonight and thinking, 'I remember that play.' This was great for us. Two of the best programs in the last decade."

Thompson said intensity is the one thing both teams have, despite different working parts. In 2009 the Lowell grad said he got tired of being asked the question, "Who would win?" He still goes back and forth.

"It was the two dynasties of the last 10 years," Thompson said. "We have so much in common."

Wells did not want to get into the debate after the game. He was just glad his Pirates could play someone else and he wasn't getting on a bus in Lafayette when we spoke.

"Lowell is a hard-nosed team that plays well and that's a plus for us," Wells said. "As far as who did what in the past, that doesn't matter. It was a good scrimmage for both teams."

Both programs went to a semistate in an odd season. My math says "11" is odd. It would not be a stretch to say both could keep their semistate streak alive. Time will tell.

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

 

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