Football at The Victory Bell
Beacons to open season under the lights at Brown Field on Saturday night
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The last two Friday nights have been a bit strange for me.
Dating back to 2005, Friday nights in the fall meant high school football. When I made the decision to step away from the Northwest Indiana Times earlier this year, I knew that I’d be walking away from covering The Region’s version of Friday Night Lights.
It wasn’t a decision that came lightly. While I knew that I’d enjoy my newfound weekend free time, I also knew that when the ball was kicked off on a Friday night, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
One of the reasons I decided to walk away from The Times and launch The Victory Bell was actually a simple one. I wanted to cover college football and I wanted to cover it for real. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve covered Valparaiso football in the past, but never with any consistency.
In my early years in the Region, we’d cover every game. The road games might have just been a phone call with the coach, but there was an effort to write a story off each contest and keep the community informed on how Valparaiso football was performing. Some seasons would begin with a season preview and other years would have sporadic feature stories if there were some local kids on the team. It always seemed hit or miss.
Then again, the product was often hit or miss. My first year covering Valparaiso football was in 1999 when I did some work for WVUR and The Torch while an undergraduate student. The team went 9-2, including wins over Drake and San Diego. The following season, Valparaiso went 7-4 and won a share of the Pioneer Football League title. I’ll forever remember the 16-15 victory over Dayton in the final conference game of the year. My senior year ended with a dud as Valpo went into the season with high hopes only to finish with a 3-8 record.
Valparaiso came back two years later and won the PFL title behind the big-play ability of David Macchi and Rob Giancola. It would be 13 years until Valparaiso experienced another winning season.
Ryan Clarke and Jarrett Morgan hooking up for a 2-point conversion in a wild storm on Nov. 18, 2017 to beat Dayton and secure a winning record is Valparaiso’s best football highlight in the last 20 years. I wish I was there to see it. After a stretch under Dale Carlson where Valparaiso went 3-41 from 2010-13, the local media all but abandoned covering football at Brown Field. Sure, I’d show up every once in a while alongside John Mutka or Dave Melton from the Post, but anything beyond a couple courtesy paragraphs just wasn’t happening.
I want that to change. Look, I know Valparaiso football isn’t Notre Dame or Purdue, or even Indiana, but it’s not trying to be. Valpo plays at an odd level, a Division I football program that doesn’t offer scholarships. If a player comes to Valpo and plays well as a freshman, he’s probably gone. Case in point, Donny Navarro, a talented receiver who caught a touchdown pass for Northwestern in its win over Nebraska on Saturday. Navarro led Valpo with 32 catches for 539 yards and five touchdowns in 2017, the lone winning fall season in the last 18 years. He left for a preferred walk-on spot at Illinois, earned a scholarship midway through the year and blossomed into a solid Big Ten receiver before taking his COVID year with the Wildcats.
As good as Navarro was in his lone year with Valparaiso, the above paragraph is more words that I’ve ever written about him before.
It’s been years since I’ve had the opportunity to tell the stories that surround the Valparaiso football program, and there sure are some stories heading into the 2022 season.
Who will be QB1? Is there a redemption arc in play for Teryn Berry? Can Mason Kaplan continue his strong work from the spring? Will Jeffrey Jackson be a change-of-pace signal caller that can make plays with his legs? Does Mikey Appel Jr. have the brawn to go with the brains? Will the youngster Rowan Keefe outshine them all?
Who is the next Robert Washington on the roster? In asking that, I don’t necessarily mean the next stud running back, but perhaps the next stud transfer to arrive in Northwest Indiana. It could be a running back in Central Connecticut State transfer Aaron Dawson. It could be Arkansas/TCU/Colorado receiver Michael Byrd Jr. Washington linebacker Ben Hines? Boston College defensive back Tyler Days? Eastern Kentucky defensive back Ousmane Dabo? Fresno State linebacker Hunter Nabers?
Can Keyon Turner continue to make game-changing plays? Turner burst on the scene as a freshman during the Spring 2021 season, leading FCS with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He was a finalist for the FCS Freshman of the Year and…he didn’t transfer. Turner came back last season , grabbing another interception and breaking up six passes. He’s part of an experienced group of defensive backs that could be the strength of the team.
Who is going to emerge as the top pass catching threats? Indianapolis native Jordan Bingham leads all returners with 24 catches for 290 yards while Braden Contreras had 19 catches for 316 yards. There are plenty of other receivers relishing an opportunity to shine, including Matt Ross, Josh Becton, Solomon Davis and Diego Del Castillo.
Which young defensive players will elevate their game and become leaders? George Dristiliaris was a machine during spring football and the redshirt-freshman from Massachusetts looks poised for a big season. Kevin Spelman and George Trojanek are also looking to make an impact on the defensive line.
Information out of Valparaiso’s fall training camp has been scarce. In an era of social media proclamations, Landon Fox and the Valpo coaching staff have yet to name a starting quarterback or even release a depth chart. In a pair of open scrimmages that the program has held in the last three weeks, the players have been (intentionally?) practicing in different jersey numbers. With 116 players on the roster at one point this fall, forgive me for not being able to keep them all straight on the practice field.
The smoke and mirrors will evaporate and everything will become crystal clear this Saturday night at Brown Field when Valparaiso kicks off the 2022 campaign in a revenge game against Indiana Wesleyan. The Beacons opened the season in Marion last year with a 28-10 loss to IWU. Berry started and threw four interceptions while Washington was limited to just 15 yards on six carries. It was a disappointing start to a season that never really got off the ground and failed to build on the positive momentum of the 2021 spring season.
Morale is high around the program, as if often is before the opening kickoff every August. In the coming days at The Victory Bell, paid subscribers will get access to a series of stories previewing the 2022 season and when the ball is kicked off on Saturday night, I’ll be there.
There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
(Photo provided by Valpo Athletics)