MERRILLVILLE — Simply by looking at Gavin Zolvinski on the football field, a casual fan wouldn't know he's a mere sophomore. That's the reality, however, for La Porte's middle linebacker.
Zolvinski was seemingly all over the field on Saturday, making play after play, immensely aiding the Slicers' robust defense.
It was Zolvinski and the defense which kept La Porte competitive most of the game against the undefeated and Class 6A No. 7 Pirates. While the Slicers ultimately fell 21-0, Zolvinski and the defense thrived in a make-up game after Friday night's storms.
“We were all together,” said Zolvinski, who led La Porte with 26 tackles entering this game. “We had a lot of hype out there. We came to play and it showed.”
La Porte (1-5, 1-3 Duneland Athletic Conference) turned the Pirates (6-0, 4-0 DAC) over three times on fourth down and kept the Slicers within seven points until late in the third period.
Zolvinski was crucial in those scenarios, including being the primary tackler on fourth and 1 halfway through the fourth.
"He's a young, promising kid," La Porte coach Jeremy Lowery said. "He's out there playing 'Mike linebacker' as a sophomore. He makes our calls, plays well. I can't say enough about that kid right now."
Nowhere was the defensive prowess more evident than a goal-line stand early in the second quarter to keep it a 7-0 margin. They stuffed Merrillville on fourth and goal from inside the 3-yard line as the defense earned a gigantic stop.
Zolvinski said a dogged determination was pivotal in that goal-line sequence.
“We all just had our nose for the ball,” he added. “We had our pride. And we weren't going to let them score.”
The coach concurred with Zolvinski.
“That was incredible,” Lowery said. “Those are huge momentum swings. They executed the plan and right there was a prime example.”
While the Pirates strength and speed seized command late in the third, making it 14-0, then out to a 21-point cushion midway through the fourth, the Slicers continued to fight.
“I'm very proud of how hard our kids played,” Lowery added. “Two of the three phases were great. Offensively, we've got to play a little better. I'm not talking effort. We've just got to execute a little bit better. It starts with me and trickles down to everyone.”
La Porte managed just 155 yards of total offense.
Defensively, it finished with a pair of interceptions, by Isaac Alexander and Kreg Warner, and limited Merrillville to about 17 points below its season average.
“We just had our pride and we kept it going,” Zolvinski added. “We didn't let that first touchdown bring us down.”
At the same time, Zolvinski highlighted what was making him particularly effective.
“I was just reading my keys,” he said. “And knowing what to do really helped.”
While Zolvinski understanding his responsibilites was key, Lowery said his demeanor is always excellent.
"The other thing about Gavin is he's just such an enjoyable kid," the coach added. "He's always got a smile on his face. He's always got a great attitude. He's the type of kid you want around."
Linebackers Jaden Browder, Austin Buda and Zach Purnell, and defensive linemen Matt Neff were also instrumental.
The loss could prove to be especially hurtful for the Slicers. Quarterback Collin Bergquist injured his right leg late in the contest and didn't return. In the third, running back Jeremiah Ruiz and offensive lineman Alex Lewis each suffered leg injuries on the same play. Ruiz later came back to play, but Lewis missed the rest of the contest. Lowery said he wasn't sure of the extent of those injures.
Merrillville capitalized on a short field to build a 7-0 lead with just over four minutes to go in the first on Darius Schultz's 14-yard TD run.
On the other side, the Slicers' offense struggled to move the ball most of the day, but had some positive plays. Bergquist reeled off a 37-yard run on his squad's second possession, then connected with Warner on a 45-yard pass to advance the ball across midfield with five minutes left before the break. Two plays later, though, La Porte fumbled as it mishandled a pitch and the Pirates pounced on it.
Once again, however, the Slicers' defense halted the home team, this time on fourth and 1 at La Porte's 39 as Purnell tallied a tackle for loss.
Late in the third, Damian Dixon ripped off a 51-yard run to pay dirt, extending the advantage to 14-0. Schultz then darted in for a 16-yard TD jaunt halfway through the last period to make it a 21-point cushion.
Bergquist guided the Slicers with 76 yards rushing on 19 attempts. Dixon led Merrillville with 80 yards on the ground, and Schultz rushed for 68 yards. Aahric Whitehead finished 15-for-21 passing for 188 yards with a pair of interceptions. Jeremiah Howard recorded 104 yards receiving.
Despite the setback, Zolvinski has seen firsthand the strides La Porte has made as a team since the start of the season.
“From that first New Prairie game until now, it's just been an outstanding climb,” he said. “We're getting there.”