For the first time ever, the Northern Indiana Conference will have more than one team playing for a high school football state championship Saturday.
In fact, the NIC has three teams in the state finals--more than any other conference in the state. Penn, Washington and St. Joe are all looking to become the best in Indiana.
The Kingsmen are in search of their 6th state title in school history and first since 2000. Penn last played for the state championship in 2003, when they were crushed in the title game by Warren Central.
While 11 years without a state title may not seem a long time, consider that the current Penn seniors were just 7-years-old when the Kingsmen last won it all.
"This is a dream right here," Penn senior linebacker Sam Laidig explains. "Everyone of us kids growing up heard about the state championships we had and this is what we dreamt of doing. It's finally happening and it's awesome."
"You ask little kids what their dreams are when they are growing up, they all say they want to play for a championship--they want to play for a state championship," Penn senior quarterback Chad Gindelberger says. "Now that we're playing for it, its almost surreal. It's real hard to grasp your mind around the fact that you are playing for something you've been dreaming of forever."
Penn (14-0) faces Carmel (13-1) in the 5A Championship game Saturday night at 7pm at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It's been 38 years meanwhile since South Bend Washington last won it all. The Panthers are the first South Bend City school in the title game since Washington won it in 1973. Of the 10 teams playing for a state title this weekend, Washington is the only urban school.
"It just shows the inner city kids around here that they can do it too--they can make it a state championship," Panthers coach Antwon Jones explains.
Jones took over a winless Washington program following the 2007 season and has built the Panthers into a state title contender in just four seasons.
The task won't be easy. Washington faces Cathedral in the 4A Championship. The Fighting Irish crushed Gunner Kiel and Columbus East 62-7 last week in Semi-State. But Jones has built a team that isn't intimidated and wants nothing more than to bring a state championship to the West Side.
"To win the state championship would mean a lot," star running back David Perkins says. "It's something that hasn't been done around here for a long, long time. It would mean so much to our community and our school."
"It would be a dream come true," says senior wideout Gehrig Dieter. "It's what we've been working towards since last year. It would be one of the greatest feelings ever."
Kickoff Saturday is set for 3:30 between Washington and Cathedral at Lucas Oil Stadium.
In 3A, St. Joe is no stranger to the state championship game. The Indians are in the finals for the 3rd time in five years battling Chatard--the very team that's defeated them the previous two times--in 2007 and last year.
This is just the 2nd year for Ben Downey as the Indians head coach, but he's led St. Joe to the title game both seasons. He also played on the last Indians team to win it all--back in 1995. He remembers the feeling well.
"I remember hugging all my buddies and celebrating with them and being so happy," Downey explains. "Then it was just strange and was like 'OK, it's over---what's next?' There is no more practice on the following Monday, you'll never play with your buddies again. It's a strange feeling but a great feeling."
Downey's players would like nothing more than to feel what their coach felt 16 years ago.
"It would mean the world to me and everything," senior quarterback Nick Carmola says. "I'm not able to explain it."
"That would mean everything to me and the team, and my family--and everybody---every alum, every St. Joe brother," senior lineman Jason Mulligan explains.
"For most of us, this is it," senior captain Collin Hickey says. "Either way there will be some sad parts to it, but hopefully the end results will be pretty good."
St. Joe and Chatard will kickoff at Noon on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. All three games can be seen on WHME--channel 46.