Try 1 month for 99¢

Michigan City legend Dan Palombizio was talking to Wolves football coach Phil Mason after the 2016 season, which went well for the first-year coach.

A 7-4 record reversed a 2-7 mark the year before.

"He asked me how I thought we'd be this year," Mason said. "I told him we would be better."

Yeah, just a little bit, right?

Tonight, Mason's Wolves travel to Kokomo for the Class 5A semistate, just one win away from a date at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Mason knows that heralded turf well. He led Andrean to the 2013 Class 3A state championship, then returned to the Colts' home field in 2014 for a runner-up finish.

This is Mason's fourth semistate appearance in the last six years.

"I'm trying to stay as humble as possible," Mason said. "I'm trying to keep the focus on the kids. I'm like a landscaper being brought in. I fertilize, water the grass and cut it. I try to make our yard look better than our neighbors.

"I want out kids to feel great about who they are."

This isn't a common theme since Elston and Rogers high school combined into Michigan City High School in 1994. The winning and deep tournament runs haven't happened in football or boys basketball.

Mason went to some hoops games last winter and looked into the crowd. He saw older guys wearing Rogers gear, with others donning Elston attire. It hasn't been easy bringing a broken history together.

That's why earlier this week Mason gathered his team in Heritage Hall near the gym. He asked how many kids' fathers went to Rogers? Half the hands went up. And Elston? The other hands flew up.

Behind the plexiglass barriers are three lockers inside Heritage Hall. Rogers, Elston and Michigan City. The old schools' lockers doors are shut. The Wolves is open. Years of old community rivalries could hang in the balance of tonight's game.

"We have an opportunity to put locks on the Elston and Rogers lockers and finally end this," Mason said. "And we can allow our high school to be accepted for what it is and who we are."

There is no civil war going on in this community right now. This group of young men have set this town on fire. The newness of this kind of success has been lighting up Indiana for over 100 years.

It's just never happened like this in Michigan City before. Not like this.

That's why Mason has stopped talking about his '13 and '14 Andrean teams as a reference point. He did it a lot last season. But he quickly learned his new team got sick and tired of hearing about the distant 59ers.

"They told me they wanted the Andrean thing to go away, and I told them to make it go away and they have," Mason said. "I'm not talking about the 2013 team anymore. It's not part of me anymore. This is me now. This is where I am. I'm now talking about the 2017 team.

"These kids are my reference point."

Everyone in the school has felt the excitement around the city, or City in this case. Signs praising this team are on most of the businesses. The mayor and other area leaders are on the bandwagon.

It's a special time that is very difficult for communities to experience. Getting this far in the tournament is tough. And when it happens, take a bow and enjoy the ride.

There is some irony in this story. Mason met Roy Richards in 1995 at E.C. Central when Mason became the defensive coordinator for Richards' team.

The first game the two fast friends coached together was the opener at Kokomo, a 36-21 loss. Now, Richards is Mason's defensive coordinator as the two trying earn back a win against the Wildkats.

E.C. Central used to be like Michigan City. You'd go see the Cardinals play and you'd see Washington and Roosevelt duds in the bleachers. Then, in 2007, E'Twaun Moore led the Cardinals to the Class 4A state basketball championship.

A unified crowd in red stood and screamed, "We are E.C." over and over again.

That's how a group of teenagers can bring change to the neighborhoods they grew up in.

Wolves assistant coach Ken Bye spoke to his team and cried with emotion, Mason said. The former coach at Elston and Michigan City knows the history in this town. He understands it. But he likes much more where everyone is at today.

"He told them we never want to forget our history," Mason said. "But having everyone come together like this is really special."

OK, Wolves. One more good game and you guys can make history. Enjoy the ride on the firetrucks, too. And finally put a lock on the Elston and Rogers' lockers in Heritage Hall.

Together.

This column solely represents the writer’s opinion. Reach him at steve.hanlon@nwi.com.

2
1
0
2
0

Sports Reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.