URBANA — The year Nathan Watson took over as Urbana football coach, the Tigers’ varsity was 0-9. The same season, the freshmen — the future of the program — were 1-8.
“A lot of staffs would have been rattled,” Watson said. “We stuck with what we believed in.”
Those freshmen from 2009 are now seniors. Mature seniors. Determined seniors.
They can call themselves champions, too.
The Tigers completed their four-year, rags-to-riches story on a dreary Friday night at McKinley Field, pulling away from Danville in the second half for a convincing 36-14 Big 12 Conference triumph.
The team’s eighth consecutive win secured a Big 12 co-championship with Bloomington.
“The best feeling in my life,” said senior quarterback Cameron Mammen, who broke Urbana’s single-season passing record for the third consecutive year.
“Hard work and the right attitude pays off,” Watson said. “The is justification of a lot of things. We took some heat in the 0-9 year, but this justifies what we’ve done.
“We’ve worked and built it up.”
The Tigers held a 7-6 halftime lead even though the offense generated no points. Kenny Patton recovered a first-quarter Vikings fumble in the end zone, and Sam Weatherhead’s conversion kick accounted for the one-point margin at intermission.
Watson didn’t issue a stern halftime message.
“He told us to stay focused and do our jobs,” Mammen said.
The Tigers turned to a ball-control attack the second half, running the ball on 33 of 38 plays. Patton, James Cobbs, Mammen and Alex Lynch all rushed for second-half scores.
Lynch gained 99 of his game-high 104 rushing yards in the final half.
“It was tough for us to get our hands on the ball,” Danville coach B.J. Luke said. “They did a nice job of keeping it from us. That hurried us up and made us too anxious.”
When the Vikings had the ball, senior Mikshadd Townsend made certain they had trouble moving forward. He had four tackles for loss among his team-high 12 stops.
“All of our seniors played well,” Watson said, “but Mikshadd definitely did.”
For Mammen, it was another day, another game, another record.
He passed for 162 yards to shatter the school’s single-season mark he set as a junior. Mammen has thrown for 1,498 yards this year. His previous record was 1,406. The record toss came on a 37-yard completion to Patton with 2:44 remaining in the second period.
“Mammen’s a competitor,” Luke said. “That’s something that is neat to see.”
Danville’s Chris Collier rushed for 114 yards, and Trent Sherfield passed for 112.
Win or lose in Year 4 of his regime, Watson instituted changes within the Urbana football program for this fall.
The biggest was implementing a no-huddle offense he learned from Shelbyville coach Stan Wienke.
“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” Watson said. “It gets the other team tired. We say we’ll outwork and outhustle everybody.”
With the no-huddle setup, the idea is to run each play quicker, allowing for more total plays over the course of a game.
“Defenses get tired if they’re not used to practicing at that pace.”
For his team, Watson said it represented a savings.
“On average, each game, we figured we were running 780 yards in sprints from the huddle to the line,” he said. “When you’re not platooning, that’s wasted energy.”
Urbana concluded its best regular season in more than two decades on Friday.
Urbana can handle the speed-up nature of the game — even with eight two-way starters — because of another of Watson’s changes.
“We do two-a-days all summer, during our contact days,” he said. “They were on the field from 8-10 Monday through Thursday and then back from 3:30-5:30 for strength and conditioning.”