Trying to keep it normal: Portage, Munster hold scrimmage
MUNSTER -- While most football teams around Northwest Indiana opted against a controlled scrimmage this weekend, it was never a consideration for Portage and Munster.
"It was great to see the kids smiling, to see life back in them," Mustangs coach Jason Grunewald said. "We never really discussed anything about not having a scrimmage. I commend all the teenagers. With all the uncertainty, it shows a lot about their character, they still want to put themselves out there, they want go back to school with all the requirements we're asking them to do. I'm so happy for them to just experience this. We weren't going to take the opportunity away."
Munster opened in-school classes this week with students also having the option to do E-Learning. Portage, likewise, started Wednesday, but it is doing Virtual Learning for the first nine weeks.
"I think the biggest thing was we just wanted to make this as normal as possible," Portage coach Terry Chestovich said. "We have a very young team, they have a very young team. I talked to coach (Grunewald) last week about what the plan was with the scrimmage and we both had the same game plan -- just to come in and try to get better, kind of slow down if we wanted to see something again, which we didn't have to. I don't know how many of these we're going to get in, so we're going to get in as many as can at the beginning."
While things looked the same between the white lines, they weren't the same on the sidelines where most Munster players distanced and masks were common place, and in the stands, which were devoid of fans.
"It was kind of weird," Portage's Jakar Gordon said of the absence of crowd noise on his three long touchdown runs. "Lake Central (last year), we've got a whole crowd, I was just pumped. Now it's all quiet."
Gordon showed his track jets on TD sprints of 35, 38 and 55 yards, complementing quarterback Tylee Swopes, who pitched scoring passes to six Indians.
"It felt very good," said Gordon, whose twin brother Jaivon plays slot. "I'm thankful for it. It was good blocking by my line, my other teammates, too, to put me in that position. If it wasn't for them, I would've never gotten that touchdown. We've just got to practice more. We have young offensive linemen. We just have to work hard, get better every single day, have good chemistry, stay focused in the game."
Swopes has some wheels of his own, but the Indians held that part of his skill set back, letting him show what he could do with his arm. In the first series, Myles Sisco did most of the damage, taking a short pass and turning into a 51-yard score. Swopes flipped wide open 35-yard TDs to Derric Calmbacher and Nick Frazier on consecutive plays and had three shorties in goal line sequence.
"We didn't want to show anything to Hanover Central. You'll see it next Friday," Swopes said. "I don't want to be known as just a runner. I'm a quarterback. I want to throw the ball. That's my first priority. If it's not there, I'll take off and run. Whatever happened last year is in the past. I'm looking forward. I just want to dominate this year. That's what I'm all about right now. They're going to do it for me, I'm going to do it for them. I believe in all of 'em. I believe in my O-line. I believe in my receivers. We've got the capability to get it done. We've just got to come together as a team, trust each other. I trust them and I know they trust me, too."
A quarterback growing up, Swopes played receiver the last two years since Portage had Zach Warchus returning behind center. He appreciated the chance to get the varsity experience, which he thinks will serve him well as he moves back to his old spot.
"I think I'm prepared to go into the season and do what we do," Swopes said. "Being able to mature, I feel like I've gotten there. I've shown leadership."
"He did very well (at receiver). Zach was a returner, so it gave us the ability to get one more athlete on the field," Chestovich said. "We like Tylee. He took (QB) reps last year and was prepared to do that. He's very vocal about some things. He's listened to what he's needed to do. When Darren (Rodriguez) was here, he talked about his leadership ability, then when Russ (Radtke) came in, it was the same thing. These are the things you need to do. He's done a great job. We're happy with what he's been giving us."
One scrimmage might not be telling of what happens in a season, but the combination of Swopes and Gordon (or Gordons) could provide a jolt for what was a dormant Portage offense a year ago.
"Those two are going to have to help us," Chestovich said. "Both Gordons have the ability to hit the end zone any time they touch it. They have track speed. It's a difference maker on the edge. We have lots of track kids out, we've just got to get a little more physical. We're just not built to run between the tackles. We have speed, so we have to utilize what we have."
A pre-season shortened by a COVID-19 suspension hadn't been ideal, but Chestovich is simply going with the flow, a necessity in 2020 more than ever.
Portage and Munster scrimmaged Friday while most schools opted not to play in advance of next week's scheduled season openers.
"We've only had eight practices unfortunately since last year," he said. "There's gonna be mistakes, there's gonna be bumps and bruises, they're gonna be sore. I tried to back off on some of the contact stuff to get more practice stuff in. We have to have a happy medium where they still learn how to tackle. It's a learning curve for us and them. You don't know what's going on. It's so fluid, every day you get out there is a good thing. You just have to try to work hard."
Swopes probably spoke for every Indian and Mustang in saying he was glad the scrimmage was held.
"It definitely feels good to play someone else besides your own team, getting a different feel from a different defense, looking at how our guys perform under the lights," he said. "I'm ready for it. Every day, I tell them we've got to do it like it's our last, show out now in case we don't get that opportunity. We're taking all the precautions we need to."
Munster's two visits to the end zone came on the same series, a short run by Laz Crenshaw and a Vince Foerster dart to a diving Noah Poole.
"We haven't had the time to condition them. It was a big worry, how they were going to react, playing all these plays with all their gear on in the heat," Grunewald said. "I thought they handled it very well. We had a lot of guys playing both ways. Obviously, we don't have as many guys as Portage, but I thought the guys played hard and handled the situation well. We're playing a lot of new, young guys. We didn't scrimmage anybody over the summer. Going into the season, it was important to get out there at game speed against another Duneland (Conference) team with officials and get used to the physicality we don't get in practice, to get the jitters out. Under the lights on a beautiful night, it just awesome."
The Mustangs are scheduled to open next Friday at Lake Central.
"Starting in August, there was a lot to put in to get to this point," Grunewald said. "Our whole motto is, take everything one day at a time. Today was a good day. Every day we get a chance to play, we play. We try to stress to the guys so much, don't waste a day. You never know what's going to happen, but I think we're on the right path. Be grateful for what we've got and move forward. Don't think too much about future, don't think too much about the past, be in the moment and let's go. If we have the opportunity, everyone is healthy, we can do extracurricular and go to school in person in a safe manner, it's a very positive thing."
Portage will host Hanover Central in its season kickoff, which will also serve as the team's senior night.
"My whole goal is make it through next week with seniors," he said. "Everything else is gravy after that. I want them to be able to enjoy at least a game, get to celebrate themselves and make sure the parents get to celebrate their kids and the four years they've done this."