By Justin Kenny of Outside the Huddle
Bailey Meerzo has heard it all, even in the hallways of his own school.
“We have had people in the last few years come into school and talk about we were going to lose,” said the Northrop quarterback. “It gets kind of old being looked over.”
Media has been no different, frequently posing the question on how Northrop – the biggest school in Fort Wayne Community Schools – can struggle through repeated 2-8 seasons on the gridiron.
That negativity frequently bled onto the team itself. Internal issues and strife tore the Bruins’ locker room apart in years past.
But not this year. Not this time.
Those outside of the Northrop football program raised their eyebrows at the 41-21 rout of Carroll last Friday, tipping their cap to the Bruins before refocusing their conversation on the top of the SAC. But at Northrop, the victory over the Chargers is worth more than a simple cursory glance.
“We have been thirsty for a win of that magnitude,” said Northrop coach Jason Doerffler about the triumph. “It finally came. We have been close a lot of times.”
Boy have they.
In 2016, Northrop took Bishop Dwenger to overtime in Week 9. The Saints triumphed on a field goal in extra time.
Last year, Doerffler’s team hung tough in a close sectional loss to Carroll on the road.
Just one week ago, Northrop stormed back against Wayne, opting to go for two late in a one-point game. The rollout pass to the right was just out of reach and the Bruins lost 41-40.
Always falling short, until last Friday.
Everything fell into place for Northrop. The offense, long the strength of the team, did its part, but it was the defense that stepped up when it needed to most. On the opening possession of the second half, Northrop turned the ball over on downs. It seemed like the opportunity that Carroll needed to flip momentum and fight its way back into the game. Instead, the Bruins picked off a Gaven Vogt pass and the offense put up another score.
“We have been in position where we have scored a lot of points but couldn’t stop teams,” Doerffler said. “On Friday, our offense allowed the defense to stay off the field by moving the ball on the ground. We were forced to throw the ball a lot in the (former quarterback Garrett Schoenle) days.
“It is nice to not have to do that.”
Despite what outsiders say, Northrop is not an easy place to win. It doesn’t have a tradition of winning football, having just a single sectional title in its history. According to the Indiana High School Athletic Administration, Northrop has an enrollment of 2,097 students, easily the largest in FWCS. But within that student body is a wealth of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic situations.
“We draw from a wide variety of kid, it’s very diverse,” Doerffler said. “They come from a lot of different backgrounds. It can be hard to develop that sense of team and caring for one another.”
Doerffler tells the story of former Northrop coach John Reid. From 1994 to 1997, Reid slugged his way through the SAC as the leader of the Bruins. The team finished with a winning record just once under Reid, a 7-4 mark in 1995. Reid’s high school coaching career path has taken him to Alcoa High School in Tennessee and Rome High School in Georgia. The Harding graduate won two state titles at Alcoa and is the two-time defending state champ with Rome.
“It is a unique place, a tough place,” said Doerffler about Northrop. “I do think there is tremendous potential if we can build on what we have established.”
It is Doerffler’s job – and the duty of a 26-member senior class – to not allow the momentum of last week’s win to diminish. For the Bruins to be successful this Friday against Concordia, the rest of this season and beyond, the culture shift must be long-lasting. That job must be taken up by the likes of Meerzo, Rashawn Vaughn, Tyler Tapp and Rashaad Moore.
“A lot of it falls on our kids,” Doerffler said. “We want to continue to show our kids that we are extremely passionate about building a winner, about becoming better people when they exit our program. They know when it’s fake and when it’s real. We just need to keep grinding.”
Northrop’s 2-2 start is its best in 2004. It has sparked excitement, positivity and a renewed commitment to change.
“Everyone in practice is all hype now,” Meerzo said. “Last year at midseason people were saying they were ready for football to be over. This year, everyone is into it.”