GARY – Jaylon Smith hasn't lost a playoff game in four years as a Bishop Luers High School starting football player. Yeah, he's a little spoiled.
But this Luers run back to the Class 2A state championship – set up by a 35-21 win over Andrean in the semistate Friday night at Andrean – is more than just the same old thing.
Don't believe it? Look at the face of senior center Will Nolan, an example of the type of Luers players who surround the stars like Smith, Kendrick Mullen and Tyvel Jemison.
Guys like Nolan, who worked like crazy to earn a starting spot for the first time in his career, epitomize the core of the program, the reason Luers can keep winning. The Knights will be going for their fourth-straight state title against Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter at 7 p.m. Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.
“It's unreal to be honest,” Nolan said. “It's like living in a dream. …It's unbelievable. It's a dream come true this year, finally starting, it's a great honor for me.”
What a road it's been for Luers, too. The Knights went through the unexpected firing of head coach Matt Lindsay, lost some games to bigger, stronger programs, and struggled at times to find their identity.
Friday night, they were back to what we're used to seeing: dominant, explosive and fully focused.
The Knights rushed for 170 yards in the first half, building a 21-7 lead on surprising touchdowns (a beautiful 30-yard pass from Quinn Cook to Michael Rogers) and familiar ones (a twisting, spinning score by Smith and a burst of speed run by Jemison).
They opened the second half with a big 52-yard run by Smith, and yet another player ended up in the end zone – Jaquale Cooper from 13 yards out. The lead was 28-7 and the game in firm control. Charles Gaston later added an insurance touchdown run.
“It's been a tough road with much adversity,” Mullen said. “We fought through everything to get back down (to state). It's a great feeling.”
Luers coach Steve Keefer, who took over for Lindsay at midseason, said Luers made a determined effort to run power football, to “bring our big boys and go head to head.”
“We definitely won the battle of the trenches,” Nolan said. “We have elusive backs. If we give them anything, they're gone. It showed tonight with 50-yard runs.”
Those runs were formed in the offseason, Nolan said, during the unglamorous task of weight-lifting and conditioning and working on a winning mindset.
Keefer has been around Luers for years. He was the head coach before Lindsay and had been working with the freshmen until stepping in to guide the team this fall.
The Luers way, in Keefer's mind, has been established over the years. The assistant coaching staff, after all, is dotted with former Luers players and Luers lifers.
“Everybody wants to be a winner, but do you want to pay the price and prepare to win?” Keefer said. “That's the message we put out and they bought into it.”
The team has gotten a lot of attention due to the publicity around Smith, who is headed for Notre Dame next season. In fact, he was headed to Notre Dame on Saturday to attend the Irish's last home game.
But Smith, who rushed for 142 yards and disrupted the Andrean offense with his play at linebacker, still savors the here and now.
“We want that four-peat and we have that opportunity next week,” Smith said.
Even during Luers' roughest points of the season, Smith said the team remained focused on their ultimate goal.
“There was never a doubt in my mind,” Smith said. “We had some tragic things go on, losing our head coach of almost 30 years. But we had to rally together.”
Cook, a junior, said the younger players were driven to send the seniors off with one last trip to state. Keefer, a voice of calm who indeed calmed the storm at midseason, pointed to the seniors as the key.
“We focused on being positive and moving forward,” Keefer said. “Getting the team ready to play has never been a problem for these guys. They do what it takes.”
Guys like Smith know what's coming next. Guys like Nolan wouldn't miss it for the world.
“Never take a play off,” Nolan said. “That's our motto.”
It's a winning one.