At Fort Wayne Snider, the expectations each August never change.
"We're fortunate to have a program where we have a realistic goal every year to play for a state championship," Panthers coach Kurt Tippmann said Monday. "There are years when we have a more viable opportunity than others, but it's something the guys have ingrained the day they show up here. "
Snider has won six straight sectionals, the last four coming under Tippmann, a 1990 graduate of the school who spent more than a decade on Russ Isaacs' staff before taking over in 2009. It reached the semistate last season before falling to Penn.
"We've got 37 seniors, some who have been playing for three years," Tippmann said. "They've got a taste of what it's like to be in these kind of games. A lot of them played against Fishers as sophomores, when we were beaten pretty soundly, and they wanted to do better.
"It's a group that's worked tremendously hard and is unselfish. When you have that many of them, they're not all playing on Friday nights, but they're contributing on special teams or scout team, and having a positive influence on their teammates."
Snider (13-0) needed all of that Friday, when it escaped with a miraculous 36-35 overtime victory over Fishers. The Panthers were down 14 with less than four minutes left. After blocking a field goal, they drove to get within 28-21 with 1:20 to go. Following a quick Fishers three-and-out, they blocked a punt and scored to tie the game in the last 30 seconds. In the OT, Snider went for two and the win.
"I can't say every guy on the sideline thought we were going to win because it looked bleak at times, but there were enough guys who said, 'Hey, this ain't over with,' and if you've got the right guys believing that, it can carry over to the rest of the team," the coach said. "We had a lot of seniors who didn't want it to end."
After watching his team not play well for most of the game, Tippmann is relieved to have what amounts to a postseason mulligan.
"The playoffs are a grind," he said. "In most cases, you have one really bad game and you just hope it's not your last one. Usually that's the team who's turning its stuff in on Monday. We didn't play up to our abilities in a lot of areas. For whatever reason, we weren't ourselves. We're one step closer, but we know we're going to have to play better or we're not going to reach our goal."
Tippmann is impressed with what he's seen of the Pirates on video in the early stages of game preparation.
"They've got lots of speed. The way they play in space, we can't afford mistakes or 10 yards is going to end up in points," he said. "Their defense flies around. They're athletic, but they're also a well-schooled, fundamentally sound group. We have a lot of respect for the Merrillville program. They pose a huge challenge."