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The past is not always in the rear-view mirror: Trip to Lowell brings back fond memories

By STEVE HANLON

LOWELL -- It was deja vu all over again, last Friday night was.

But not one person called me "Yogi" as I strolled into The Inferno like I'd done many times over the years. The sights and sounds at one of the Region's top high school football stadiums felt like a warm eiderdown in November. The blacks and reds for the home Lowell Red Devils were like a toasty cup of tea.

Especially for me.

This old sports scribbler has been struggling with health and medical issues for several years. My daughter and I were struck from behind by a fast-moving car that careened my skull off the roof. Severe concussion ramifications have slowed this old baller to a halt. It's been tough to say the least.

But God is good and I was alive, and so was my daughter.

Thankful thoughts were slow-dancing in my mind as I went to see the New Prairie Cougars, a fine football program. A sort of mirror-image of the Red Devils.

Lowell coach Keith Kilmer spoke of how this growing rivalry came about. I would say it's the best Class 4A public-school showdown in northern Indiana. Period.

"The conversation started when Rusty was there," Kilmer said of long-time Griffith coach Russ Radtke. "We all felt it was a great fit."

Radtke's New Prairie squad beat Lowell 28-27 in the 2014 regional after a Lowell running back slipped at the 1 on an icy, frigid field. Radtke, like he's done before, then took his team to Lucas Oil for a state championship game.

The gauntlet had been dropped.

"Lowell is a great, historic program," current New Prairie coach Casey McKim said after his team survived the Devils 24-7 in a game that was closer than the scoreboard read. "They are very physical and that's the kind of thing we're trying to do here. Playing a team like this helps us prepare for the postseason. This is the kind of game we want to be involved in."

New Prairie is 3-0 and ranked No. 4 in the state poll heading into tonight's game at Mishawaka Marian. Lowell takes its 1-2 record to Griffith.

Talk about deja vu all over again, right?

New Prairie is now in Sectional 17 along with Lowell and Hobart, another powerful team that should be even better in a couple months when the win-or-go-home part of the schedule picks up. I can hardly wait for this tournament to kick off.

It should be, and will be, great.

"We're young and inexperienced," Kilmer said. "Those things don't go together at the beginning of the season real well. These kids will keep working and we're going to focus on getting better. I believe we will."

The Red Devils opened up against a much-improved and very good Crown Point team, losing 42-0. Standout running back Malachai James was injured in this contest and is likely lost for the season. This is big news in such a place.

Losing a tailback in Lowell, Indiana is like life-long politicians forgoing hidden handouts and inside deals in Washington, D.C.

The two go hand in hand in both cases.

"We've got some kids working hard to fill the gap," Kilmer added. "Next man up. That's high school football."

Lowell was driving late in the game and got to the Cougars 10, trailing by 10. A score here would've made it a barn burner. But a fumble on a great hit by New Prairie's Brock Sinka and a recovery by teammate Brice VanBruaene ended the drama. Plays like this are what puts the crown on prep football.

"That was big," Kilmer said.

"That was massive," McKim said.

Lowell's Owen Thiele rushed for 69 yards on 15 carries and one score. Quarterback Riley Bank added 54 yards on the ground on 22 carries, some running for his life. He threw for 66 yards as well.

New Prairie's line play exceeded Lowell's efforts. That must get better. The running game must improve, too. It wasn't bad but to make it rain in November, Kilmer's team is going to have to rush for more than the 123 yards they got against the Cougars.

I believe they can.

The old acquaintances I saw at The Inferno were awesome. Like always. Felt like the past had come back to life for this foggy-headed guy drinking lemonade on the front porch. But the sounds and lights and memories from before didn't stop on a dime. Another old idea spiraled between my ears.

In 2005, Lowell started the season 0-4. Like this autumn, against a very tough schedule. I wrote a column how I felt people were giving up on a positive team too soon. I believed then coach Kirk Kennedy, with Kilmer on the same sideline, could and would get the boys going. Just a gut feeling.

High school football in Lowell, Indiana is like Commercial Avenue in front of the school. It never, ever goes away.

It might need some potholes filled or some new asphalt spread over the old, but it does not go away.

The 2005 team righted the ship and went on to win the state championship. Heart and spirit didn't get killed because of a bad start.

Now, I am not saying this Lowell team is going to win the state title this year. But I do believe there's enough talent here to get much better in the next two months and be ready for a postseason run, when the lights get brighter.

"Our kids still believe," Kilmer said. "We're going to work to get better. That's what we try to do here."

Talk about deja vu all over again. I was waiting for Don Bales to bring a bale of hay into the press box.


Brice VanBrueane's fumble recovery helped sealed New Prairie's 24-7 win over Lowell on Friday at The Inferno. Photo by Michael Kellems

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