PORTAGE — Losers of three straight to quality opponents heading into the sectional opener, Portage remained confident and focused.
Trailing 14-7 at the end of the first quarter, Portage rallied off 27 straight points on its way to a 34-14 win in a Class 6A Sectional 1 semifinal at The Warpath on Friday night.
"Our message the whole time to the kids is that we've been right there," Portage coach Darren Rodriguez said. "In those losses, it came down to the other team making plays and us not, and if we're going to win this sectional title and do what we want to do, we have to make some plays and (Friday) our kids did that.
"We wanted to be in the championship game and the kids did what they needed to get there. Now we just need to take the next step."
Portage (5-5) rode its ground game all night to the tune of 296 yards on 36 carries. Quarterback Anthony Maceo had 10 runs for 147 yards and a touchdown and threw two scoring passes for 55 yards.
"It was about executing in everything we did," Maceo said. "When we execute like we can, good things happen. L.C. came out strong and wanted to give it to us but we felt the same way. We kept fighting on both sides of the ball and everyone started doing their part."
A 28-yard connection from L.C.'s Zach Bundalo to Giovanni Lopez opened the scoring at 6:32 in the first quarter to cap a 10-play drive. Portage needed just three plays to tie it back up as Maceo hit Greg Milledge for 29-yard TD.
Lake Central threw together another lengthy drive in response — this time 11 plays — as Joshua Williams ran it in from 15 yards for a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.
An onside kick following the score set up Portage at their own 47. Runs of 12 and 30 yards by Maceo put the Indians at the 10, and Cody Russell eventually scored from 3 yards out.
"(Lake Central) was doing a lot of rotating and bringing guys off the edge, so the give was there on the read option," Rodriguez said. "Anthony made some good reads and gave the ball to Cody and Cody runs really hard. I know he was liking what he was able to do (Friday). It was nice to take the workload off Anthony a little bit.
"We had a lot of reps coming in because we weren't sure all week what front they were coming out in. The offensive line did a good job and fired off the ball and did some good things. Jared Jones and Brandon English did a nice job at our tackle spots."
A Jeremy Torres interception midway through the second quarter set up Portage at the LC 40. On the second play of the drive, Maceo hit Angel Sanchez for a 26-yard TD.
"The second quarter we went back to a 4-3 defense after L.C. took advantage of our 3-4 at the beginning," Rodriguez said. "We did some things with our guys up front and they started to make plays and shut down some things. The biggest turning point for us was getting some turnovers and turning them into scores.
"I'm happy with how we played from the second quarter on, we couldn't stop anybody in the first."
Jimmy Craven's fumble recovery on the ensuing Lake Central drive gave Portage great field position once again at the L.C. 46. A 39-yard run by Maceo led to the 2-yard score from Russell and 27-14 halftime lead.
Russell ran for 90 yards on 16 carries.
"Our linemen did a good job of getting a push and we had cutback lanes from the receivers making their blocks," Russell said. "We felt pretty confident coming in with our ground game. Our line was pushing and we had more fight and more strength and that allowed us to move the ball."
Portage added its final TD at the 3:09 mark of the third quarter on a 14-yarder from Maceo.
Lopez had four catches for 82 yards to lead Lake Central (2-8). Bundalo was 9-of-12 passing for 162 yards.
"We came ready to play and went up twice but when it came time to make a play to put us over the top, we made mistakes," L.C. coach Tony Bartolomeo said. "We lost the field position battle and we couldn't stop them and when we did, we were inside our own 10-yard line. Hats off to Portage, they played well tonight after starting a little slow.
"Our kids battled and played their hearts out, I'm proud of them for that. We had a lot of youth out there and I'm looking forward to developing that and having more seasoned guys next season."