Slicers keep the faith

Photo by Scott AllenRobbie Kiner of La Porte looks for running room against Michigan City in Friday's game at Ames Field.  The Slicers quarterback threw for 101 yards and the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

MICHIGAN CITY — Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.

The profound Doris Walker line from the 1947 version of "Miracle on 34th Street" rings true with La Porte's football team.

"To not get into specifics, no one will ever know the struggles this team has been through," coach Jeremy Lowery said after Friday's 14-10 sectional semifinal win over Michigan City at Ames Field. "It's been one hurdle after another."

The new La Porte coach inherited a number of player suspensions that included some key pieces. A brutal four-game starting stretch resulted in four losses by a cumulative score of 145-27. After a win over Lake Central, there were three more defeats, all competitive, then a victory over Portage that sent the Slicers into the postseason at 2-7.

All along, Lowery stuck with his buzzwords "trust" and "process." The grind never showed on his face, he joked, except when he was in that deep, dark corner in his basement. The energy he radiates never withered.

"There's no magic wand. You can't go to Wal-Mart and buy that little pink wand that makes that sound," he said. "We've been beat up physically, mentally beat up, emotionally beat up, but our kids just went back to work and believed. There's only one way to get there and that's through hard, stinkin' work, sweat, blood and tears, and that's what they've done. They haven't blinked. You come to our practices, you wouldn't think we were a team that lost all those games. We came to work every day."

Lowery began to lay that foundation the first time he met the new team back in the spring.

"The key is we made a connection," he said. "It's a two-way connection. When you connect at a higher level than football, you're able to overcome things. Those relationships are what it's all about. We bonded very quickly. It's trust. I said on day one we were going to build this thing on trust. We promised 'em it would happen, we just couldn't tell them when."

As it turns out, Friday was that night.

"Oh, it feels great to come out here on our rival's field and send them home for the season," quarterback Robbie Kiner said. "It's so rewarding for this team. The guys have been putting in the work every single day, getting it done in class, attacking it in the weight room. For all this hard work to pay off, it's starting to feel real good."

Kiner credits Lowery for enabling the players to maintain their resolve during all those low points.

"The brotherhood within this team is amazing. It's so strong," Kiner said. "Everybody's kept this team together. We've continued to motivate each other even through the hard times, through the blowouts. Coach always said, 'We just have to focus on what's next.' We can't do anything about the last play, the next play is what matters. It was just the change in culture. Everybody on the team became closer. We brought a lot more energy to practice, on and off the field. Guys were flying around, wanting to get better. Just the love this team has for each other, we all want to play for each other, especially the seniors. We want to make sure they're not ending their season too early. It's just been amazing."

Within the team's struggles, Kiner was experiencing his own adversity. He was in and out of the lineup until an injury to Collin Bergquist left the position to him. He had completed just 11 of 36 passes for 187 yards prior to Friday, when his play didn't reflect his statistics. He connected on 7 of 10 passes for 101 yards and the winning touchdown.

"You'll never know how hard we worked on that," Lowery said of Kiner's passing. "You talk about a process, that's been a serious process. For two weeks now, he's managed the game very well and made some really nice throws when we needed them. That's what our quarterback has to do. Things didn't always go Robbie's way. He had to dig in and look in the mirror like all of us have and get back to work."

His game-winning toss of 18 yards went to a wide-open Justin Forker on a play where the Slicers used motion to the right side to draw Michigan City's aggressive defense to the opposite direction. Forker had two catches for 24 yards all season. He had two for 51 in this game, the other a 33-yarder that got LP out from the shadow of its own goal post on the previous possession, a field flip that proved consequential when City's Jonathon Flemings put the ball on the ground and Isaac Alexander hopped on it at the Wolves 15. Grant Ott-Large, who had one catch for 11 yards up to Friday, was also a revelation, reeling in four tosses for 41 yards.

"The passing game is a big part of our offense. It opens up our running game and gives us a lot of chances for big plays," Kiner said. "The first few completions I had, I just felt good. The receivers were making unbelievable catches. Our protection was good. We just opened up the playbook a little bit, starting to air it out to open our run game up. All night, things were slowly starting to click. We just needed to brush up a few things. The flags were really killing us. We just tightened down, focused on the details and played our best football when it mattered the most."

A turnover of downs with a minute left and the Slicers had secured their first win over their rivals in five tries.

"Those blowout days are over," Lowery said outside a still raucous locker room. "I'm so stinkin' proud of 'em. You talk about a process game, this was definitely a process game."

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