BOLINGBROOK | Either he was supremely confident in his team or a little crazy -- or both.
Whatever the case, Gary Steelers head coach Scott Kaletha would have played it the same over again under the same conditions.
"I have a lot of faith in this team," Kaletha said of his Junior Midget football squad, which just punched its ticket to Florida for the Pop Warner National Championships after holding off the Hoffman Estates Red Hawks, 8-6, in a bone-chilling thriller Friday at Bolingbrook High School to win a Mid-America Division II Regional title.
Leading 8-0 with less than five minutes in regulation, a pair of uncharacteristic crunch-time penalties by the Steelers pushed them back and had them facing a fourth-and-21 situation at their own 25 yard line. The Steelers decided to go for it and were stuffed short of the line of scrimmage.
Hoffman Estates took advantage and eventually scored, but it needed to kick a two-point conversion for the tie.
"Sometimes you've got to play to the conditions," Kaletha said while referring to the bitter gale-force gusts from the north that seemed to be on the verge of knocking the goal posts over. "Even if they got it back, I knew they had to go into the face of the wind."
The Red Hawks were unable to make the conversion kick due to a high snap and a fierce Steeler rush. Gary was able to secure the ensuing on-side kick, and when it converted on a fourth-and-one with time running out, the game was sealed.
The Steelers scored in the first half on a 65-yard pass play from Bryce James to James Kirkler Jr.
The Red Hawks were able to respond with a long drive, but turned the ball over in the red zone shortly before halftime. Then to start the second half, Hoffman Estates churned out another long drive only to be stopped short in red zone again -- this time on downs.
Gary is one of three Northwest Indiana teams that have advanced to the National Championships, Dec. 1-8 at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista.
The others include the Michigan City Wolves, who edged the Shaker Heights (Ohio) Fire Raiders, 6-0, to claim the Division II Junior Pee Wee regional title; and the Southlake Red Devils based out of Lowell, who rolled over the Bedford Heights (Ohio) Saints, 26-0, for the Division II Pee Wee regional title.
Michigan City will be going for its second national title in three years. In 2010, the Wolves became the first Indiana team to win a Pop Warner national title when their Junior Pee Wees claimed the crown.
Incidentally, Kaletha was an assistant coach for that Wolves team, which also included several current Steelers players who hooked up with Gary when there wasn't enough to fill out a Junior Midget team.
The Red Devils also have national championship experience. Nearly half of the Pee Wee team comprised Southlake's Junior Pee Wee team last season that advanced to Florida for the first time in the program's history.
Last season in Florida, the Red Devils and Michigan City's Pee Wees both lost their national championship openers. Southlake head coach Tom Surowiec obviously is hoping for a better showing this time around, but at least it's almost assured the weather is going to be better.
"This was by far the toughest and coldest conditions we played all season," Surowiec said. "And this (the Saints) was our toughest opponent. We were very nervous about these guys coming in."
With a ground game spearheaded by backs Blake Jansky, Tucker Greenholt and Jaeger Gill, the Red Devils were able to consistently move the chains and intermittently break free for big gains.
The Saints were always a threat with their advanced big pass play capabilities. But they could never burn the Red Devils.
"Our backs were great ... they ran hard, but our line play was really outstanding," Surowiec said.