CHAMPAIGN — There's one fundamental reason why high school football programs such as Tuscola's — with its 18th consecutive playoff appearance — are IHSA postseason regulars.
Tuscola seniors Josh Brookins and Philip Meyer are the ideal illustrations. Friday's Class 1A state title game was their 54th high school game.
Do the math.
At schools that do not qualify for the playoffs and have nine-game regular season schedules, 54 games would require six years.
Brookins and Meyer achieved that number in four seasons.
Ask yourself: Which players and, consequently, which teams are going to be the best year in and year out? It's an easy question to answer. Those who receive the most practice time and the most games are going to find themselves at the top more often than not.
'Let's be thankful'
Tuscola coach Rick Reinhart recognizes the advantage, both for his current squad, which dropped a 41-27 Class 1A title-game decision to Dakota on Friday at Memorial Stadium, as well as for the upcoming ones.
"It's a situation where you have your kids for 20 more practices," Reinhart said, "getting more reps. No doubt, that is a huge advantage."
And when they're not practicing, there are the games.
"You're exposed to tremendous programs every week," Reinhart said.
Tuscola's underclassmen — who filled 34 of the 45 varsity spots in the championship game — will understand that value in the future.
Though disappointed at the outcome in a game Reinhart said, "I thought and still think was within our reach," the coach left Memorial Stadium feeling positive.
"It's not very often you get to work with a great bunch of kids," Reinhart said. "Let's be thankful for what they've done.
"We were outweighed and out-manned, but we weren't out- hearted. We came up short today, but they fought till the end. They'll go on to be great adults, great parents."
The best, ever
As a team, the Warriors indeed fell short against a bigger — much bigger — opponent.
"They have a heck of a team, and you can't do much about that," Meyer said.
Senior linebacker T.J. Onstott had one of his best games in his finale. His game-high 17 tackles were not only one away from his personal high game but shot him past Andrew Parker for career (395) and single-season tackles (168). The previous marks were 380 and 167, respectively.
"We tried to block him," Dakota coach Jerry Lano said, "but he was strong and quick enough to get away."
Onstott recorded a tackle the first time the Indians touched the ball, stopping Lance McCauley after a 6-yard gain on a kickoff return.
"He is a stud," Dakota junior running back Jake Apple said after his record-shattering title-game 373-yard rushing performance. "He is built like a tank. When you have an All-State backer like that, they'll make tackles."
Reinhart said it was a special way for a special player to complete his prep career.
"T.J. is the epitome of a high school linebacker," Reinhart said. "He reads keys, runs to the football and plays hard.
"He has an unbelievable spirit. Pound for pound, he is the best linebacker in the Midwest. If he was 6-3, he could go anywhere (to college)."
Onstott is one of 11 members in Tuscola's football senior class.
"Every senior was a starter," Reinhart said. "Every senior contributed. Every one of them was in the weight-room in the offseason."
Onstott and Robert Lopez were the starting guards on offense. Dan Kneipp and Cole Stanfield were the starting tackles. Lopez also starts on the defensive line as does another senior, Caleb Wilson.
"If you saw some of these linemen as freshmen you'd have thought, 'No way,' " Reinhart said.
They built themselves up, in part, due to the extra practices and the extra weeks they were allowed to spend with football.
"There's not a class that has worked harder than the seniors," Onstott said.
They did so collectively, which was how you'd often find them away from the field.
"At some places, you have a couple people who run around with each other," Onstott said. "We're all extremely close. The seniors are all together."
Besides the five linemen, Brookins and Meyer, the other Tuscola seniors are receivers Dillon Hoel, Jimmy Knight and Jordan Scribner (who teamed up to catch 12 of Meyer's 14 completions in the title game) and linebacker Chance Little.
Onstott said Friday's game was one where the opposition deserved credit for what it achieved.
"Sometimes," Onstott said, "you run into a bigger, faster, better team."
Eye to the future
Tuscola deserves the applause for a job well-done this season, its third straight year in a state championship game, but there is an important point to remember. Other high school programs really can have one of the main advantages that the Warriors — and others that make deep postseason runs — have enjoyed.
It doesn't have to be a situation where the strong stay strong — and get even stronger — due to the extra time spent on football while the weaker programs struggle to catch up, occasionally doing so only when an exceptional group of athletes is present.
The IHSA allows schools to continue practicing once their season ends up until the day of the last of the eight state championship games. Wouldn't that be a great way to start resurrecting a program, bring back the returning players for an extra few weeks of workouts while putting the soon-to-graduate seniors on the scout team to help provide some quality workout competition?
Sounds like a winner to me.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, at 217-351-5232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.