PORTAGE -- It hasn't been an easy season for Portage. The 2-6 record (3-5 if you want to count the Lowell forfeit) told the story of its difficulties.
Even Friday, leading 28-7 over La Porte in the third quarter, when it looked like, for at least one night, it would all come together for the Indians, it still ended up being hard.
"That's the first time we've gotten off to a start like that," coach Terry Chestovich said. "We talked at halftime about keeping the intensity up. You go through stages where you're trying to figure out how to win games, then a couple things go bad, you've got to make sure the kids keep their heads up and keep playing."
Portage blew the 21-point lead and had to go to overtime, but rebounded with a 6-yard run by Danny Puplava and a stop on defense to escape with a wild 34-28 win.
"We don't have to have style points. It doesn't have to look pretty," Chestovich said. "I said when I got hired, this isn't a pretty hire, it's not sexy, but the kids have done an awesome job. The win-loss record isn't what we wanted it to be, but we've gotten better since day one. We talked before we came out, we've figured out how to compete in games, now we've got to figure out how to win them. Obviously, we don't want to win like that every week, but I'm so proud of our kids to fight through the whole season. It's a credit to them. It's been a struggle. To finish the regular season with a win, it's outstanding. Their perseverance, I can't be happier with that. I'm proud of 'em."
La Porte's RJ Anglin tackles Danny Puplava of Portage in Friday's game (Photo by Jay Anglin)
The 210-pound Puplava, who scored on a 5-yard run after a D'Juan Washington blocked punt in the game's first two minutes, took a pair of direct snaps in the OT, churning out four, then six yards to break the tie.
"Just run downhill, just go get it," Chestovich said. "Danny's a captain, one of our leaders, (I said,) let's go get it, let's win this. He's a real smart kid. He's played all four years. He does a great job in terms of trying to keep everybody positive."
La Porte (3-6, 3-4 Duneland) blocked the extra point, but didn't gain a yard on its offensive series. Colin Bergquist (221 yards, two TDs), who limped off with an ankle injury late in the fourth quarter, returned for the overtime, but was stuffed twice and RJ Anglin then threw two incomplete passes.
"I looked at our intensity going into the OT, I knew after we scored, the defense was going to stop them," Puplava said. "Chestovich got them going. I was so happy. As you could see, we got a little lackadaisical. I knew when they made that comeback with the pick six, someone had to take the lead. Once I took the lead, everybody else started buying into it. We went into the OT knowing how strong we were, especially with our blockers. They just helped me out and I can't thank them enough."
Portage (3-6, 2-5) ran for 263 yards, using a cavalry of backs, in part, to mix it up, and, in part
due to injuries, as Terrell Craft (96 yards, TD) and Jakar Gordon both aggravated prior problems and regular quarterback Tylee Swopes was already out.
"This week, we knew coming in we were going to have to pound it through the middle," Puplava said. "I thought we had a really good week of practice. We changed our mindset. We have a lot of weapons on our team that can do a lot. The O Line, they did what they were told. The coaches helped us out a lot."
As the depth chart diminished, Cameron Walker chipped in 42 yards in the fourth quarter. He returned a kickoff 68 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to put Portage up 14-7.
"We're one of three teams in the Duneland that played all nine games. We've got some bumps and bruises,"
Chestovich said. "Kraft got dinged up last week. We felt we'd be able to ride a little bit, then (the injury) started coming back and we tried to give him some time off, the way the score was. Jakar was dinged up. It was a battle of attrition. (Walker) had to jump in. Those are the things we try to tell them in practice. You've got to be ready to go in and take your reps. We expect big things from him going forward. He and Terrell being sophomores, we have some depth at running back."
Craft scored from the 7 and Josh Bloom flipped a 21-yard TD to May-Sin Hollowell as Portage built the 28-7 advantage in the third quarter.
"Hats off to Portage. They played well," La Porte coach Jeremy Lowery said. "They played with a lot of energy, a lot of effort, and they have some nice team speed. It was just evident we were lacking some energy early in the game for whatever reason. Any time you play two overtime games back to back, last week was an emotional win -- I'm not Dr. Phil, I'm a football coach -- I thought we had a really good week of practice. The kids seemed excited. At the end of the day, you've got to make plays, block, tackle, take care of the football. We didn't make enough plays."
Bergquist got the Slicers going in the third quarter with a 5-yard score and an Ethan Puckett cut the deficit to seven at 11:42 of the fourth with a 40-yard pick six when he stepped in front of a swing pass. La Porte capped the comeback with a 28-yard Jayden Parkes halfback pass to Grant Ott-Large, one of only two Slicers completions.
"(Bergquist) does a great job with what they do," Chestovich said. "(Our defense) is pretty simple -- do the same things over and over. I thought we made some big gains with the second half of Valpo last week, and we showed more. We had some spells when we didn't do what we needed, but we've got guys who are stepping up. We're putting it together. Unfortunately, it's the end of the season, but it's never too late."
Given all the unknowns and adversity of the season, Puplava couldn't have been happier.
"We were extremely lucky to have a season," he said. "Especially to go out with a homecoming win in my senior year, it means a lot. I wanted to do it for our seniors, too."