I've heard a lot of theories about Bellmont's incredible charge to the 2008 3A state football championship. A few were: the stars were aligned, everything fell into place; only a few players had hangnails (no injuries); they were just plain lucky to get by Concordia in sectional; and some great teams got knocked off prior to the finals.
How about these instead: the Braves had about six of the top 3A players in the state; they fought like crazy as a team on every single play; those big time players delivered with clutch play in every crucial situation, with the games on the line; and, they were the best doggone team in the state, look it up!
Two key players from that stunning run will be back in the championship limelight Thursday night in Rome, Georgia when Billy Baker and Grant Melcher line up with Marian University as the No. 5 NAIA Knights (11-1) clash with No. 3 (13-0) Morningside (Iowa) Mustangs for all the marbles in the 57th National title game for that division.
"Coach (Ted) Karras mentioned that when he recruited us. I think it's pretty awesome that we're right here on the doorstep," stated Billy Baker, undoubtedly the best high school athlete in Indiana in 2008-09, and the most decorated athlete in the history of BHS.
Baker, of course, plays defensive tackle, as he did for the Braves and will likely receive some post-season honors. He was one of a handful of Bellmont recruits that headed to Marian as Karras built his program from scratch.
Melcher worked his way into playing time last year on defense, but a severe ankle injury put him out seven weeks and put him behind on the depth chart. He was moved to offense this year, playing fullback in power formations in addition to his work on special teams.
"Coach came to me before the season and said he needed a fullback for power and goal line situations, when we have three runningbacks on the field," said Melcher.
"I even started a few games when the regular fullback broke a finger. I hadn't played offense since the eighth or ninth grade, but it worked out fine. For next year, they're talking about moving me to tight end."
Of course, there's a game left this year. "This could have been our second title game," pointed out Melcher. The Knights made it to the National Semi-finals last year, losing to St. Xavier 30-27. "We had the ball first down on the one-yard line and didn't score. We had a couple of penalties and an intercepted pass. It just wasn't meant to be."
This year, Marian beat Missouri Valley College on a 51-yard field goal as time expired to get the title shot. Morningside took care of St. Xavier handily to earn its first title shot.
The squad practiced at Indy Monday, then headed to Georgia to start a week of practice and fun. "We've got a banquet or something every day, so it's going to be fun, but we'll be watching film all week. We'll know what they do, and what we have to do to stop them," said Baker. "We've got confidence we can do it."
Confidence was something that Baker never lacked his senior year. He was the heart and soul of the Braves, and his heady play to sniff out the Concordia swinging gate P.A.T. trick play kept the Braves in the tourney. His relentless pursuit of some great 3A quarterbacks from regional to Lucas Oil Stadium was too much for the bad guys to overcome.
To put some whip cream on his senior year, all Baker did was bruise his way to an unbeaten 215-pound state wrestling championship. This year he has seven sacks, including one in the semi-final win.
Melcher played a roving linebacker-safety hybrid for Bellmont in '08, and his pass breakups late in the regional game keyed the Braves against Yorktown.
Both are fourth-year juniors who will play one more year.
"Morningside has a good fullback, but they really want to spread the field with receivers and pass the ball. We have to keep making solid plays at the line and put pressure on their QB," said Baker.
Marian's offense is more balanced. The Knights rushed the ball 44 times for 175 yards in the semi-final, and passed for 153 in 28 attempts.
"Everything came together for Morningside against St. Xavier. Every time St. X would blitz, they'd throw right where the backer left and make a play," explained Melcher.
Marian's only loss this year was to St. Xavier in a game in which nothing seemed to work well for the Knights. Marian had over 400 yards of offense, but was able to get in the end zone just once.
"We think we played in a tougher conference and they just haven't played the competition we have, so we're not afraid of Morningside," added Baker. The Knights downed perennial NAIA power St. Francis twice this season, including 45-34 a few weeks back in the tourney.
Melcher feels that having Karras on the sidelines is a real plus. "Coach Karras comes from a really good football background and he's very organized. He sees everything. He recruits well and we get a lot of transfers who want to come here and play for him," praised Melcher.
"He's very humble and teaches and preaches that, and how to apply that to real life. I see him getting an opportunity to go to a division one school."
"The coaches will have us ready," added Baker. "Even though they beat up on St. X, it's definitely a winable game."
I know a couple of young men from Decatur who will know what to do when it comes to chasing down the championship hardware.