HISTORY OF PIRATE FOOTBALL
Calumet Conference (existed from 1949-1969)
Merrillville – (conference membership: 1949-1969) – 4 Conference ChampionshipsThe conference disbanded in 1969 as member schools found themselves leaving for other endeavors and conferences. Gary Edison withdrew a year before the conference disbanded when they closed their doors for good. Old Calumet Conference northern foes Chesterton and Portage joined previously independent Hobart and Valparaiso to form the Duneland Conference in 1970. Merrillville, Crown Point, Griffith, Highland, Lake Central and Lowell went on to form the Lake Suburban Conference, which would remain in existence from 1970-1992.
Lake Suburban Conference – (existed from 1970-1992)
Merrillville – (conference membership: 1970-1974) – 2 Championships
As previously stated, in 1970 Merrillville joined the Lake Suburban Conference with the likes of Calumet, Crown Point, Griffith, Highland, Lake Central, Lowell and Munster. The Pirates would remain a member of the conference until they left in 1974 in favor of the Duneland Conference. The first year in the Lake Suburban Conference was difficult as the Pirates struggled to a 1-5-1 record. However, the next 2 years found the Pirates in the middle of the conference standings. In 1973 and 1974, Merrillville’s final two years in the Lake Suburban Conference, the Pirates won the conference with a perfect 7-0 record.
Duneland Conference: (1970 - Current)
Merrillville – (conference membership: 1975-Current) – 6 Conference Championships
In 1975, Merrillville left the Lake Suburban Conference in favor of the Duneland Conference. The joining of the Duneland Conference brought with it a renewed conference rivalry with old Calumet Conference foes Chesterton and Portage. In their second year in the conference, 1976, the Pirates came under the direction of Coach Ken Haupt. Under Coach Haupt, the Pirates placed 2nd in the conference and went on to win the 3A state championship. A defining moment in the state title run was a 35-14 win over conference champion Valparaiso. The Pirates then went on to defeat SB St. Joseph’s in the regional championship (21-0) and Indianapolis Cathedral (28-24) for the 3A state title. The 1976 state championship was the first and only state championship in Merrillville football history. It was also only the 4th official state championship under the state’s new tournament format. As stated before, prior to the implementation of the new tournament format in 1973, all state championships were mythical state championships awarded by the AP, UPI or other ‘state champion’ indicators.Coach Haupt finished his coaching at Merrillville as the winningest coach in the program’s history. In Coach Haupt’s 9 years, he was 72-21 and the Pirates won over 77% of their games under his guidance. However, before Coach Haupt’s exit in 1984, the IHSAA decided to move to a 4 class system. It was also in this year that the IHSAA decided to give every school playing football a chance to play in the state tournament by placing every team into a cluster of 5 or 6 teams. This change, which officially took place in 1983, placed every team in the state into a ‘cluster’. The team that won its ‘cluster’ would be admitted into the state tournament The problem with this method was that some teams with poorer records but in a weak ‘cluster’ may be able to advance where as a stronger team in an extremely competitive ‘cluster’ may not advance. This coupled with possible scheduling conflicts that may have forced some long standing conferences to have had to fold led the IHSAA to approve the current format for the state tournament in 1985. This format was in line with the format implemented by other Indiana sports in that all teams were placed in single elimination bracket based on school size (classes) and region (sectionals). Indiana is the only state in the nation that runs a format that allows every team in the state to qualify for the state football tournament regardless of their record.Not only was 1985 the year that the IHSAA went to its current tournament format, it was also the year that Frank O’Shea took over as the head football coach of the Pirates. During those 3 seasons, the Pirates were 18-13 as they went on to win 1 sectional title (1985) and 1 conference championship (1986). Rick Wimmer took over for Coach O’Shea in 1988 and guided the Pirates for the next 8 years. Under Coach Wimmer, the Pirates were 62-30 as they went on to win 2 conference titles (1991 and 1992), 1 sectional title (1992) and 1 regional title (1992). Under Coach Wimmer, it was the 1992 team that was the closest to making another state title appearance when they traveled to Fort Wayne Snider for a semi-state match-up and lost 14-7 on a late Fort Wayne Snider touchdown run. Fort Wayne Snider went on to defeat Indianapolis Ben Davis for the state title that year. In Coach Wimmer’s 8 years, he coached 12 1st team All-State players, 8 North-South All-Stars and 1 All-American (Jamel Williams) that
went on to play in the NFL. Jamel’s jersey, #28, has since been retired by the Pirates.
Merrillville high school’s facilities and school were also updated in the early 1990’s. As a part of a massive high school renovation, the old football stadium was demolished. The 1991 season was played on the road as all home games were played down the road at Andrean High School. Many players were taken to practice by bus everyday as practices were conducted at Harrison Middle School, currently Merrillville Intermediate School. 1992 was the inaugural year for the newly built Demaree Stadium. The stadium which included a varsity locker room, freshman locker room, official’s locker room, coach’s locker room, training room, office for the trainer, coaches office, film room, room for the washer and dryer and 2 storage rooms on the home side made the difficulties of 1991 worth the trouble. The Pirate defeated the Crown Point Bulldogs in a special Saturday night game by a score of 28-6 with future NFL player Jamel Williams scoring the first touchdown in the new stadium.
In 1997, the Pirates hired the 5th coach in its storied history. Long time staff member and ex-defensive coordinator Jeff Yelton took the helm and directed the Pirates over the next 9 years. Coach Yelton’s teams went 68-34 and won 1 conference title (2004), 3 sectional titles (2004 and 2005) and 1 regional title (2005). After a 12 year drought, Coach Yelton was again able to bring a Duneland conference title back to Merrillville in 2004. The following year, 2005, Coach Yelton’s Pirates snapped a 13 year drought by again making it to semi-state. The Pirates lost to the eventual state runners-up, Hamilton Southeastern, by a score of 17-7. Coach Yelton coached 12 1st team All-State players, 10 North All-Stars, and 1 All-American. Coach Yelton also coached Eugene Wilson who went on to win 2 Super Bowl titles as a member of the New England Patriots. Eugene’s jersey, #7, has since been retired by the Pirates. Known as a player’s coach, Coach Yelton resigned as the head football coach after the 2005 season to watch his son, Kyle, play football at the University of Illinois. Coach Yelton was inducted into the Indiana Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009.In 2006, Merrillville hired ex-Merrillville player Zac Wells as the 6th head coach in Merrillville history. Over the last 5 years, Coach Wells and his staff, who he attributes the success to, has gone on to win 75% of their games, won 2 conference championships, won 3 of the program’s 8 sectional titles and 2 of the program’s 5 regional titles.In the summer of 2008, Demaree Stadium saw the most recent addition to Demaree Stadium take place. The stadium’s playing surface was significantly upgraded as field turf was installed. In addition to the field turf, the stadium got a new scoreboard that includes a message board, new field goal posts and a sound system to replace the old one which had only 1 speaker left working. The Pirate lost that inaugural game on the field turf with the first touchdown on the new turf being scored by and offensive lineman. Offensive center, Joey Nelson, jumped on a fumble in the end zone to record the first touchdown scored on the turf at Demaree Stadium.