MICHIGAN CITY — Success came quickly to Michigan City football when Phil Mason arrived in 2016.
The former doormat of the Duneland Conference rapidly ascended to contender status in the league and the postseason, winning sectionals and regionals in Class 5A the last two years.
With victories come expectations and sometimes an unrealistic raising of the bar, but the Wolves coach isn't backing down from them, despite some youth in the ranks and the big, green specter of Valparaiso now looming not only in the regular season but in the sectional.
"It's society," Mason said of the hype. "There no doubt. The fact that we've been the step-sister for so many years, I kind of feel like I did when I was at Andrean. I look at it no differently. I kind of feel like when I was there, it's not fair to say we were everybody's Super Bowl, but everybody wanted to beat Andrean, for numerous reasons. Nobody wants to lose to Michigan City. We know teams are gunning for us. We're the smallest school in the conference. Our school has the smallest amount of tradition. We've got to come ready to play."
Much ado has been made of Valpo's move to 5A for the next two-year cycle and rightfully so. The Vikings reached the 6A semistate last season and return plenty of talent, including massive sophomore defensive end Cooper Jones, a highly-coveted college recruit. M.C. has lost six DAC games in three seasons and three of them are to Valpo, the only team Mason hasn't beaten as the . All that said, Mason doesn't want to have everything wrapped up into two weeks -- the regular-season meeting in week four and the all but inevitable sectional clash.
"Everybody wants to talk about Valpo, which is great," he said. "We're excited. I feel like that's definitely the monkey on our back, but if I've been negligent anywhere, I need to recognize every week's going to be a battle. Looking at things, whomever comes out of our sectional has one heck of a chance (to reach state) with New (Palestine) and (Indianapolis) Cathedral both coming out of the south (semistate). Our expectations are to always do what we did the past year and try to one better it."
City returns 11 starters, four on offense, where a young line is the primary source of concern, especially given Valpo's strength across from them, and seven on defense, led by a veteran secondary.
"I like where we're at," Mason said. "We're a little younger. We're going to go through some growing pains, make some mistakes, but once again, we're just so athletic. If we've got the right kids working hard in the right places, we'll be all right. Are we going to average 44 points a game like last year? Probably not, but I still think we're athletic enough that I'd tell you you better not get in a track meet with us."
Michigan City scrimmaged New Prairie, Concord, South Bend Riley, Mishawaka and Rensselaer, in addition to a trip to Illinois.
"We saw a lot with New Prairie," Mason said. "Roy (Richards) and I, our relationship with (New Prairie coach) Russ (Radtke)is great. Rensselaer looks really good. It was a short summer. June, I think, has everybody in a little bit of a mental funk. It was so bad and the weather is so nice now, I'm glad we're at the back end of the calendar where the season is back a week. It gave us an extra week of summer before the kids are in school. I can't imagine the teams down south with the kids in school already."
City will host New Prairie in a scrimmage next Friday before opening the season in two weeks against Griffith, the first of three straight home games to start the schedule.