Outsiders viewed this as a likely rebuilding year for Valparaiso with only one returning starter.
The Vikings have proven them wrong.
“They lived up to their mantra all year, which is against all odds,” Valparaiso coach Bill Marshall said. “Having some bumps in the road has tested us and made us step up to the plate and do what we’re capable of doing.”
No. 9 Valparaiso (10-3) will meet No. 2 Whiteland (12-1) in the Class 5A state championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Marshall said his team showed its fortitude in winning two consecutive one-point games, topping visiting No. 6 Merrillville 15-14 in the regional and No. 1 and host Fort Wayne Snider 22-21 in overtime in the semistate.
The Vikings are averaging 25 points a game while holding opponents to 15.
“It’s been very strong defensively for us this year, with the exception of a couple games early on,” Marshall said. “It hasn’t been two or three standout players; it’s really been defense by committee.”
Senior linebacker Alex Rodriguez leads the team with 82 tackles. Below that, there are four guys with 35 or more tackles.
“Being able to gang tackle, run to the football and a great defensive scheme have really benefited us, especially down the stretch,” Marshall said.
Junior quarterback Justin Clark leads the rushing attack with 950 yards, followed by junior running back Travis Davis with 863 yards and sophomore running back Thomas Burda with 769. Davis missed five games with a midseason injury but has returned; he ran for 277 yards in last week’s semistate win.
Marshall said to have the luxury of three kids with 750 yards or more helps with the game plan.
“It spreads defenses out to make them worry about all three threats at the same time,” he said. “We have the threat of passing once in a while. People would say we are a run-first offense, but I would say that’s most of the teams in the state that want to get the ground game going first.”
Clark has completed 67 of 150 passes for 885 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions.
Senior defensive lineman Zach Brown is the lone starter returning from last year’s 10-2 team, which lost in to Michigan City 31-28 in double overtime in the regional.
“We were very senior heavy last year,” Marshall said. “We had senior class of 48. This senior class is lower at 26. We were very green early on, but now we’ve been hitting our stride.”
Ten of the seniors dressed as freshmen when the Vikings reached the 5A state championship game in 2019 before losing to New Palestine.
“They had a taste of it,” Marshall said. “They kind of know what it took, even though they only had a small fraction of that season because they were freshmen and we brought them up for the postseason. Some also have brothers who have been through the program in the last five years. As the record would show, we’ve had a lot of success.”
The Vikings are 51-11 in Marshall’s five years as coach.
Marshall said the past experiences have helped the team and staff.
“It’s battle-tested our staff as well as our players know what it takes to win a semistate on the road,” Marshall said. “We knew there is stuff we can control, which is the internal, and stuff we can’t that is the external.”
The victory over Merrillville avenged a regular-season road loss of 37-10 on Sept. 30. The previous week, Valparaiso had lost 34-13 to Crown Point.
“I think we learned some things and I think we grew up tremendously,” Marshall said. “The thing we took out is we played great halves against each team. It was just a matter of putting two halves together.”
Marshall said the Vikings did that in the postseason.
The challenge against Whiteland will be keeping their running game in check.
“I told one of the IHSAA officials it might be the quickest game in high school state championship history with how much we run the ball and how much they run the ball,” Marshall said. “Being able to contain their jet sweeps and being able to be firm with interior seven to stop the run first. Right now I think they are 14 percent pass, we have to get them in those down-and-distances where we know they are going to pass, force them to flush the pass and make them pass on the run.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Valparaiso’s 2022 season, game by game:
Aug. 19;at Penn;L, 35-6
Aug. 26;Hammond Central;W, 52-0
Sept. 2;LaPorte;W, 42-3
Sept. 9;at Michigan City;W, 35-14
Sept. 16;Chesterton;W, 19-13
Sept. 23;Crown Point;L, 34-13
Sept. 30;at Merrillville;L, 37-10
Oct. 7;Portage;W, 31-0
Oct. 14;at Lake Central;W, 21-14
Oct. 28;at LaPorte (sectional);W, 42-3
Nov. 4;at Chesterton (sectional);W, 14-7
Nov. 11;Merrillville (regional);W, 15-14
Nov. 18;at Fort Wayne Snider (semistate);W, 22-21