FORT WAYNE | Merrillville came within a couple dropped passes, a couple missed fourth downs of a trip to the Class 5A state championship game.
Falling 42-39 to Fort Wayne Snider on Friday, the Pirates turned around a low-scoring first half to outpace the Panthers in the second half.
After falling behind 35-23 at halftime, the Merrillville defense held Snider to one score in the second half while the offense piled on 16 points.
"(Snider's) a really good football team and we weren't able to play in all phases of the game, and I don't think there's anyone that can say they didn't play all the way to the end," Merrillville coach Zac Wells said. "They made it exciting, didn't they?"
After punting on its first possession of the game, Snider scored five straight times to take a 12-point lead at halftime. The Pirates punted just once in the first half, but also turned the ball over when they were unable to convert a 4th-and-1, and settled for a 37-yard field goal by Matt Warren for their first score.
In that first half, Snider scored on the pass (two touchdowns by quarterback Brandon Phelps) and three times on the run, including a 35-yard scamper by Tyrell Swain for his second touchdown of the half.
It's not as if the Pirates couldn't drive on the Panthers. After starting the game completing one of the first six throws he attempted, quarterback Jake Raspopovich was good for eight straight, six to Joey Cowser, as Merrillville drove down the field.
Both drives that were replete with passing led to touchdowns as Merrillville scored twice in the second quarter on a 7-yard pass from Raspopovich to Cowser and a 1-yard run by Bryant Isabell.
"My receivers were making phenomenal catches," said Raspopovich, who threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns. "Tonight wasn't the best night for me to have a bad game. Not here, not on a night like this. If I just played a little better, when it's a three-point game, maybe we're making the trip next week."
By the second half, the Merrillville defense made what Wells called "fundamental changes" and was able to force Snider to punt twice and strong safety Ryan Neal made an interception with 7:16 left in the game that led to a score that pulled his team to within 10 points.
"Our kids never gave up and Ryan was down on himself a little bit early in that quarter," Wells said. "He responded by having a great pick, that was a one-handed catch that he crowded into his body."
Raspopovich threw to five different receivers, led by 137 yards on eight catches by Aaron Dye, and 88 yards on six catches by Cowser. DyLon Collins rushed 15 times for 115 yards and a 49-yard touchdown to lead the Pirates ground game.