On Friday, August 18 the La Porte High School football team made history in an exciting game against its cross-county rival and last year’s state runner-up, New Prairie High School. For decades the two schools have fought over ownership of the Milk Jug, and for the last five years La Porte has been on the losing side. Thanks to the Slicers’ new interim head coach, Austin Epple, the football team was able to make a comeback like never before.
Football has always been a big part of Epple’s life. He played for La Porte during high school and went on to play football at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. However, he didn’t pick up a love for coaching until he tore his ACL during his last two seasons of college. He didn’t want to just sit on the bench doing nothing, so he started helping out his defensive line coach. It didn’t take long for Epple to fall in love with coaching; he knew he wanted to coach back at his old high school.
After college, Epple started working as a police officer and school resource officer for La Porte High School on behalf of the La Porte County Sheriff’s Office. Work prevented him from being a full-time coach, but Epple started working as an assistant coach for the Slicers in 2018 and has been coaching ever since.
When Epple got the opportunity to be an interim head coach this season he jumped at it. He knew the La Porte High School football team hadn’t had a steady coach in the last four years, which had made many of the players, especially the seniors, lose their love of football. Epple wanted to help give the boys one last final season that would renew their love of the game.
“I feel for them. I want to do my best for them. They've had a new coach every single year that they've been in high school, which is extremely unique and unfair. We have a lot of underclassmen talent but the senior class is what's inspired me and inspired our staff. I think their presence and everything that we owe to them is what's been driving us the last few weeks. They're willing to work and they want to win,” said Epple.
Friday’s game against New Prairie was Epple’s first official game as head coach. His offensive coordinator, Grant Seaburg, was only 23 years old while his defensive coordinator, Matt Otwinowski, was only 26. Neither had ever called a play. The team’s quarterback was a sophomore who had never taken a varsity snap. There was nobody who believed in them except for them.
“Everyone was saying weren’t going to be within 17. We heard that all week long. None of it surprised us because having your fourth coach in four seasons makes things tough, especially going against the state runner-up, but the kids knew. They'd worked hard and they’d shown up and they were ready,” said Epple.
People held their breath and clenched their teeth as quarter by quarter went by. Before everyone knew it it was the last quarter and the Slicers were up 17-15. Hopes were high, but everyone still had their doubts as New Prairie scored a field goal with 56 seconds left on the clock. The Slicers were now down 18-17.
The seconds ticked down as the boys battled for everything they had worked so hard for. This wasn’t just the first game of the season: this was their Superbowl. The Slicers took the kickoff and drove it down the field. They kicked the ball and with only six seconds left on the clock--goal.
When the Slicers converted a go-ahead field goal, everyone couldn’t believe it. The crowd went wild and stormed the field. The football team ran to Epple to give him a celebratory Gatorade bath. The whole time Epple just smiled, knowing all along what his team was capable of.
“I just kept saying we did it, we did it over and over again because nobody outside of our program thought that it was possible. We proved everybody wrong. It was amazing,” said Epple.
Now the football boys get to walk into their locker room every single day and see the jug. It means a lot to them to know they accomplished something everyone thought they couldn’t do. The win was incredible, but Epple and the boys know their season is made up of more than just wins and losses.
“Where we're at as a program, we cannot define our success at this point in time solely on the wins and losses. I think it does a disservice to the kids, I think it does a disservice to our coaches, and I think it does a disservice to the program,” said Epple.
Instead, Epple has focused on teaching the boys how to be better young men. To do this, he’s created his very own five pillars of Slicer football. Each pillar focuses on a different goal and value that the boys can carry with them for the rest of their lives. The five pillars are earning a diploma, representation, humility in victory and tenacity in defeat, leaving it better than you found it, and service and sacrifice.
So far the kids have been extremely receptive. Their grades have been better, behavior issues have decreased drastically, and most importantly, they’ve never been closer as a team.
“It's on the kids, getting them to understand the importance of all of this and the importance of what they do and what it means to the community and what it means to themselves. Football in high school is a finite entity--there is an expiration date. Getting these kids to be bigger than themselves and believe in something bigger than themselves is what’s most important about this season,” said Epple.
It’s ultimately touching to see a team that has struggled for several years make a comeback and show everyone exactly what it’s made of. The La Porte football team couldn’t have asked for a more passionate and caring coach and Epple couldn’t have asked for a better group of young men to mentor.
Epple doesn’t know what the future holds for his coaching career, but he’s committed to staying as long as his work allows.
“Slicer football has been in my blood since I moved here. This has been a dream come true. I’m very humbled by that and I’m very thankful for the kids for accepting me as part of their team,” said Epple.
To learn more about La Porte High School, visit www.lphs.lpcsc.k12.in.us.