Return to title game brings back memories
ST. JOSEPH — The situations are similar, eerily familiar for Shawn Skinner.
An assistant coach with St. Joseph-Ogden’s state-bound football team, Skinner was a player for the Spartans the first year they reached the state championship game in 1989.
“We were a very close group,” Skinner said. “I was fortunate enough to come in from Homer my freshman year, during the school strike. When those seniors (from the ’89 team) were sophomores, we embraced one another.
“It was unspoken that we’d go to the state championship. Those guys believed that we were supposed to be there.”
One strength of the current squad is the camaraderie and chemistry that comes from years of friendships. This group, too, set a title-game appearance as a goal since they were in grade school.
“We are all close outside of school,” tailback Orion Ciota said, “and that helps on the field. We don’t really argue.”
Happiness wasn’t the only thing on Skinner’s mind after he helped his team to a win in the Class 2A semifinals in 1989.
“I don’t remember ever feeling like I did after the Final Four game,” he said. “We were beat up. It was a physical train wreck.
“Looking at our guys (last) Saturday, Greenville gave us one of the most physical games we’ve had.”
At one point in the first half, SJ-O was using a senior tailback (Brady Depratt) who hadn’t practiced the position since he was a freshman.
The outpouring of public support is a Skinner memory as the 25th anniversary of the school’s first title-game berth approaches next year.
“The town just embraced us,” he said. “We were rock stars for two weeks of our lives, in a most positive way. The Champaign radio guys were talking about us, and it seemed like Champaign County as a whole was rooting for us.
“We truly thought this is what we were supposed to do. Much like the team this year, we got hot and started playing well at the end of the year.”
Skinner was a tight end whose duties included blocking for tailback Justin Royer. The back had a way to communicate without words as he was running.
“Royer would put his hand in our back and tweak us the way he wanted us to block,” Skinner said. “It was almost like he was driving a car. He’d get behind you and push you the way he wanted to go.”
The players had an extreme amount of faith in their teammates on the field.
“We had an unbelievable mix of athleticism and personalities,” Skinner said. “We all trusted that the guy next to them would do their job. Football is like a symphony when it’s going right, 11 people working as one. We had that 100 percent belief in each other.”
The Spartans made a road trip to state in 1989, traveling to Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium.
“It was the first time I’d ridden on a charter bus,” Skinner said. “When we left, the (school) parking lot was absolutely packed. Along (Interstate) 74, it was like a scene out of ‘Hoosiers.’ They lined up and followed us over there. As I’ve gotten older, I understand what everybody did to back us.”
The hoopla subsided, Skinner said, once the referee blew his whistle.
“Once the kickoff came, it was a football game,” he said. “It had an ebb and flow. We tied it at 7. They went up 13-7. We tied it at 13.
“We had a trick play we’d practiced over and over. Jason Franklin, our receiver, had an end-around, and he threw it about 50 yards to John Woodard at the 1. We did a quarterback sneak (with Jeff Fee) and tied it.”
A pivotal moment in the loss to Woodstock Marian came at the 50-yard line on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
“We had fourth and a foot, and Coach went for it,” Skinner said. “Jeff gained 2 yards, but they spotted it an inch short. Then they scored two TDs to beat us. If we’d gotten that first down, we win the game. We had all the momentum.”
Skinner is prepping for his fourth title game. He was an assistant coach at Westville when the Tigers made back-to-back appearances in 2006 and 2007.
For Skinner, the championship games have become personal. After playing on SJ-O’s historic first state finalist, the two appearances with Westville were equally memorable.
“My dad (Jim) was my defensive assistant,” Shawn Skinner said. “Having him on our staff meant a lot to me.”
This year, back with his alma mater, Skinner gets to enjoy the experience with two of his sons. Shane is a sophomore on the team. One of his 13-year-old twins (Todd) is the ball boy.
“I’m living the dream for the fourth time,” said Skinner, a second-year volunteer coach with the Spartans.
He considers it a privilege to work alongside two of the coaches who worked with him as a teenager, SJ-O head coach Dick Duval and his 26th-year assistant, Bob Glazier.
“Those two men taught me a love for this sport, and I’ve learned a lot from them,” Skinner said. “Those two are not just good football coaches but good men. It has been a joy to come back and give back to what they’ve helped me get into.”
The association is a two-way street, Duval said.
“He brings a change in our practice intensity and gets the scout team to play with a little more heart and intensity,” Duval said, “which is what it takes to get the first group ready. The second group needs to be as intense.”
Another valid comparison between the current team and the 1989 unit, Skinner said, is “the team from ’89 would be proud of the way we’re playing defense. The last three weeks, we were up against teams we were not supposed to be able to stop. No one knows, but us, what’s in our hearts. I had a great feeling and believed 100 percent what we were doing at Greenville.”
On Friday, the final test will come. The Spartans and Stillman Valley match 11-2 season records in the 4 p.m. championship game at DeKalb’s Huskie Stadium.
There is no overwhelming favorite.
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” Skinner said. “If we execute, we have a chance.”
He’s not trying to imagine the feeling of celebrating a final-game win.
“I’m not going there,” Skinner said. “At the end of the day, win or lose, I’ve been blessed. So many people in this profession never get this opportunity. Coach Duval preaches, ‘Enjoy the moment.’ You never know if you’ll get back.”
The Spartans are returning for a fifth time, moving the program into a tie for second on the all-time list of title appearances by area schools.
Fourteen area schools have played in a football state championship game. The list:
SCHOOL LAST APP. TOTAL APPS.
Arcola 1995 6
St. Joseph-Ogden 2013 5
Tuscola 2011 5
Unity 2012 4
LeRoy 2003 3
Schlarman 1981 2
Westville 2007 2
Atwood-Hammond 1980 1
Danville 1976 1
Georgetown-Ridge Farm 1994 1
Iroquois West 2003 1
Mahomet-Seymour 1977 1
Paxton-Buckley-Loda 1984 1
Prairie Central 2003 1