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Whenever Mike Wishnevski makes it back home to Portage, he'll drive over the hill on Willowcreek Road leading into downtown.

As he passes the middle school where he went to high school, and Trumble Field, he and his family look to the right and salute the place where Wishnevski made his name as a bruising running back and helped put Indians football on the state map.

The routine will likely be repeated Friday as Wishnevski returns to be part of the 40th anniversary celebration of Portage's 1977 Class 3A state championship.

"We didn't know what was going on. All we knew was just how to work hard," said Wishnevski, who lives outside Louisville. "My dad told me the day after we won that I would appreciate it more in 30 years than you today. He was right. We broke the bubble. It's going to be a joy to see them all, real special. I think it'll feel like it was yesterday."

Portage Athletic Director Kelly Bermes said 13 players have confirmed plans to attend, in addition to Klein and then-athletic director. Larry Casbon.

"I'm grateful to Portage for making this effort," said Jerry Lasky, a sophomore tight end on the team. "It was a magical year, one of those things where everything just came together. We had great coaching, great leadership, a senior class that was so determined to win. They were coming off a 2-8 season and didn't like the feeling of losing. No matter how many up-downs the coaches had us do, the seniors would have us do extra."

With its 33-14 drubbing of Evansville Reitz, Portage became the third consecutive Duneland Athletic Conference team to win state, following Valparaiso and Merrillville. Only Valpo of the three was a DAC champion.

"It showed what the conference was all about," Wishnevski said. "I remember I felt bad for Reitz. They were supposed to be a team for the ages and we really took it to them. We took the foot off the gas in the fourth quarter and everybody had a chance to share in the game. The team was truly special in the sense that we all played together. After we won, it was like we were just waiting for the next game."

The championship proved to be the easiest game of the postseason. Portage took its biggest step toward the title by toppling Merrillville 3-0 on a Will Mackenzie field goal in the opening round of the playoffs. The Pirates had thumped Portage 34-7 during the season.

"Early on, we started to do the extra things to be a better club," Wishnevski said. "We gained confidence as the season went along. The coaches saw how good Merrillville was and they made the needed changes. They never lost faith in us. We kept hearing about the other teams, how great they were, and they were great at keeping us focused on one game at a time."

Wishnevski called the Portage style "own or be owned football" and he was the poster boy for the smashmouth, power-I attack, directed by Mark Evans. Klein had a strict hair policy, but Wishnevski recalled him relaxing it that year and many of the players growing beards.

"Coach Klein treated us as men," he said. "He taught us how to play the game right, play it fair. We were going to beat you man to man. He knew how to press the right buttons. He was the most inspirational coach I ever played for. We had two hall of fame coaches (Klein and Brad Smith) and the others were equally deserving. We beat each other up each week to get better. I remember the linemen always trying to get me an extra yard."

Not that Wishnevski needed a great deal of help.

"Mike only needed a fraction of a second and he was gone," Lasky said. "Teams needed two, three tacklers to bring him down. My job was to block down on the tackle, but our line was so strong, I'd rub off to the inside linebacker or just run down field looking for somebody."

In the championship, Wishnevski rambled for 221 yards and four touchdowns. When the team returned home from state, he recalled the throng of supporters stopping the bus before it could even get in the parking lot. The team also appeared on the popular "Ray Rayner and His Friends" on WGN-TV.

"I think they let everybody stay home to watch it," Wishnevski said. "The fans of Portage were so supportive. I don't think they realized what a 12th man they were for us."

After starring in football and baseball at Indiana Central (now Indianapolis), Wishnevski was chosen in the second round of the 1982 baseball draft by the Seattle Mariners and spent six years in the system, getting a cup of coffee in the bigs. He returned to finish his degree and played college football at 28 before taking a job with Otis Elevator, where he has been employed since. Wishnevski still exchanges Christmas cards with ex-teammate Steve Cole. Lasky spent time at Portage as an administrator and is now the principal of Union Township Middle School.

"Though I'm in the area, I haven't seen a lot of them," Lasky said. "I learned so much from those seniors, it'll be an honor to be back with them, an opportunity to reminisce about our wonderful memories together. Your elders tell you how fast things go. To see how fast 40 years have gone by, it's a very humbling feeling. As time goes on, it makes you appreciate how hard it is to do what we did and I was very fortunate to be a part of that team."


Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.