By Mike Deak
MISHAWAKA – It was a somewhat curious decision on both sides, but one the Mishawaka Cavemen and their administration felt was best for the school going forward.
On July 1, Mishawaka High School officially left its charter status in the Northern Indiana Conference and joined as the eighth school in the Northern Lakes Conference. The move ended nearly a century of status in the NIC, swapping places with Elkhart Memorial, which is merging with Elkhart Central to become its original namesake in Elkhart High School.
The Cavemen obviously have a long and storied tradition in athletics. As an institution dating back to 1873 and helping found the NIC in 1927, its Cave basketball arena is the oldest gymnasium in the Hoosier State. Steele Field is also one of the unique venues in high school football, with tunnels situated much like Notre Dame and standing nearly as old, crafted in 1939.
“When you come to Mishawaka, you’re coming to a special place that appreciates quality, tradition, and top-rate competition,” offered Mishawaka High School athletic director Dean Huppert. “And if our fans don’t realize how special the facilities are at NorthWood, Plymouth, Concord, Goshen, Northridge, Warsaw and Wawasee are, they will soon. We’re lucky to be part of that group. Proud to say the least.”
The Cavemen have a rich tradition in several sports, and should be able to fill the void Memorial leaves in the NLC. The wrestling, boys track and cross country, football and volleyball programs on Lincoln Way East all have at least a dozen sectional titles. Between the five programs, the school claims all seven of its IHSAA state championships, three each for wrestling (1991, 2008, 2010) and volleyball (1980, 1983, 1988) and a boys cross country title in 1946. Football, under the guidance of now Warsaw head coach Bart Curtis, reached the 2012 state finals.
In all, the trophy cases at Mishawaka have 129 sectional, 60 regional and 25 semi-state titles among its sports lineage.
The announcement in 2018 of Mishawaka joining the NLC put the Cavemen smack dab in the middle of the conference in terms of attendance, which for the 2020-21 season is listed to have 1,477 students per the IHSAA census. That puts Mishawaka fourth behind Warsaw (2,103), Goshen (1,923) and Concord (1,657) and 80 students larger than Northridge (1,397).
Huppert knows Mishawaka has certain strengths and weaknesses, the perennial contenders in football, volleyball, wrestling and the running sports should fit in well with the conference. He also knows in an NLC that housed up to six ranked boys soccer teams last fall, swim juggernauts in Northridge and Concord and a basketball landscape that has a state champion in NorthWood’s girls program, the challenges will certainly be interesting.
“We feel like this is a great fit for the Cavemen,” Huppert said. “While we’ve been traditionally strong in a lot of our sports, we’ve never backed away from competition in sports that we need to grow. I won’t predict how we will do overall, but I will tell you our kids will work hard and compete.”
The Cavemen certainly have plenty to bolster in its individual coffers, including 2020 wrestling state champion Joseph Walker, Notre Dame cross country superstar and former multiple state champion Anna Rohrer, and Chicago Cubs first round draft pick Chadd Blasko.
“We come from a conference that has produced professional and Olympic athletes,” Huppert said. “Our kids might not be the biggest, fastest or strongest, but they have pride. And with the guidance of our outstanding coaches and the support of their families and our fans, they will do their best. We didn’t want to come to the NLC because we thought it would be easy. We want to align ourselves with quality programs and schools who have the same high expectations as Mishawaka.”
While the trip might take some time for schools and fans from the southern half of the NLC – specifically Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee – Huppert assured there is plenty of worth more so than just making a trip attached to Chick Fil-A and University Park Mall.
“We look at Mishawaka as a destination for a lot of fans,” said Huppert. “A lot of people come to our city to shop and eat already. Now they can watch their favorite team and make a night of it. We’re proud of our city and we’re extremely proud to have the name of the high school be the same as the town. Just like Plymouth, Goshen and Warsaw, Mishawaka is the center of the town and a gathering place for many.”