Mike Allen probably wasn’t alone in feeling like this in late August.
“To be honest,” the veteran Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley football coach said, “I didn’t know at the beginning of the season if we’d even get to this point, where we’d have the playoffs.”
Such is life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after the pandemic derailed high school sports in Illinois last school year.
But, good news: A year after not having a fall like high school football players, coaches and fans are accustomed to, playoff football is back in 2021.
“The playoffs seem to have a greater impact in memories than maybe what the regular season has,” Hall of Fame Unity coach Scott Hamilton said. “When we get to the playoffs, we don’t talk much about what the regular season has been like. You’ve got to find a way to just understand that one slip-up, and just like that, it’s over with.”
The playoff atmosphere at home games, the road trips to away games and all the pent-up energy filtering through a high school’s hallways are back in full force this school year.
The IHSA playoff pairing show will air locally on WCIX at 8 p.m. this upcoming Saturday once all Week 9 regular-season games are complete.
The 256-team field, split into eight classes, will then embark upon first-round games on Oct. 29-30, with playoff games every weekend until the culmination of the state championship games on Nov. 26-27 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
Hamilton’s Rockets will be among those 256 teams, with Unity carrying a perfect 8-0 record into its regular-season finale on Friday night at Monticello (7-1). Cully Welter’s Sages are the last area program to win a state championship, with Monticello doing so in Class 3A in 2018.
Eight area programs so far, including Unity and Monticello, have already reached the six-win threshold to automatically qualify for the postseason.
Five other teams are at 5-3 and eligible for the playoffs, with a few more on the cusp with either three or four wins. How the field will get determined is even more in question this season because of the pandemic forcing several teams across the state, like Tuscola, to forfeit a few games while programs were put on pause because of positive COVID-19 cases.
Tuscola coach Andy Romine, whose team is at 3-5 heading into its Week 9 home game with Meridian, probably won’t know what to do in the fall if his Warriors don’t make the playoffs. Tuscola has reached the playoffs every full season under Romine since he took control of the program in 2015 and played in the 2017 1A state championship game.
“There’s nothing like playoff football in a small town,” Romine said. “It’s the most exciting time of the year.”
Bringing the town together
Dalton Hoel couldn’t agree more with his former coach’s assessment.
The 2018 Tuscola graduate was a senior on the Warriors team that dropped a 21-20 decision to Lena-Winslow in that aforementioned state final four seasons ago that took place in DeKalb.
Despite Tuscola and its rabid fan base having to make a three-hour drive to Northern Illinois University, Hoel still remembers being in awe of all the fans that made the trip the morning after Thanksgiving.
“The biggest effect that had on me was just the confirmation of the community that I lived in,” said Hoel, who currently is playing baseball at McKendree University. “Seeing how many people were out there caring for you, appreciating you ... there’s a ton of people in our community that just look forward to Friday night football that aren’t in the high school.”
Steven Migut knows the feeling well, too.
The 2018 Unity graduate was the Rockets’ quarterback when they last played in a state championship game in 2015. Only a sophomore then, the game didn’t end well, with Kankakee Bishop McNamara pulling away for a 50-7 win.
But Migut, who started his college career playing football at Army and is now a student at the University of Illinois, is able to reflect now on the many positives associated with that playoff run from six years ago.
“It’s a big thing especially because with five separate towns, everyone pools into Tolono to watch on Friday nights. It’s a big part of the Unit 7 community,” Migut said. “Everybody loves Unity football, and taking away the playoffs is like taking away a championship from Tom Brady. He’s always there.”
Confidence comes in many ways
Both Migut and Hoel expressed pain for the high school football players who have lost games — in the postseason or regular season — because of the pandemic.
“Some of the best memories of my entire life came with high school football,” Hoel said. “The fact that some people missed out on that aspect of that, I feel really bad for them.”
“Whenever I heard about there was not going to be playoffs (in 2020), I was just devastated,” Migut added. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I was in high school, imagining that season without the playoffs. ... I remember growing up as a kid, and it was like the playoffs are ritualistic. It’s just a thing you did every year.”
It can feel that way for programs like Unity and Tuscola. But there are plenty of other area teams that can’t boast the same energy.
Mahomet-Seymour (8-0) soon will play in its first postseason game since 2017. Same for Westville.
Iroquois West clinched its playoff berth on Saturday with a 56-6 rout of Dwight, sending the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Centennial is within one victory of qualifying for its first playoff appearance since 2015. Hoopeston Area/Armstrong-Potomac became playoff eligible on Friday night with its fifth victory, a milestone achievement for the Cornjerkers since they haven’t reached the playoffs since 1993.
So what does it take for any team to get itself playoff eligible and follow that with a lengthy postseason run?
A lot, it turns out.
Hamilton, in his 28th season at Unity that has included 26 playoff appearances and five state runner-up finishes, said tradition is integral to the Rockets’ frequent success.
“Our team breakfast that we have at the Philo Tavern. Our Monday practices. Just the things that go along with the playoffs,” Hamilton said. “Couple that with we’ve been blessed to play a very diverse group of people — teams from the north, south, west, 2A, 3A, 4A, public schools, private schools, state champions — (and) we’ve kind of seen it all.”
Romine noted that it’s essentially impossible for a team to completely dodge the injury bug. So, he said, finding ways to counteract it is paramount.
“You’ve got to have some depth,” Romine said. “The experience and the trust we have in terms of being able to lean on our game preparation ... (also) helps.”
Guy Goodlove is in his 28th season coaching Westville football. The Tigers will be making their 14th playoff appearance in his tenure later this year, and Goodlove has helped the program to Class 2A runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2007.
He agrees with Romine that sufficient preparation is something any team gunning for a postseason run needs to focus on.
“The mental preparation that goes into games. It’s watching game film. At this point in the season, it’s not so much physical as it is mental,” Goodlove said. “You should know what it is that you’re supposed to be doing. You should be able to recognize formations. You should be able to read guards. You should be able to do a whole lot of things you’ve been taught, and hopefully you don’t have to think about it anymore.”
A big talking point during back-to-back runs to 2A state championships for GCMS in 2017 and 2018 was how significantly the Falcons were affected by their weight training. It’s an aspect Allen, in his 21s season coaching the Falcons, thinks back to a few years later.
“Confidence that carried over from our weight room, which helped prevent injuries,” Allen said. “You have to have the confidence of going (into a playoff game) and not panicking if you get down.”
Allen also isn’t afraid to mention the “L” word in the room.
“A lot of luck,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re a running team you get a passing team (for an opponent) and vice versa. I think you have to have a lot of luck.”
Memories from playoff runs
Migut and his 2015 Unity teammates were fortunate they had a postseason to look forward to. Because a 6-3 regular-season record didn’t exactly have the Rockets feeling thrilled about their efforts.
“One of our coaches said Week 1 of the playoffs, ‘If you guys go out and lose to Marshall, you may go down as one of the worst teams in Unity history,’” Migut said. “We were like, ‘We’re not going to go out like that.’ Then, four games later, we were playing for a state championship.”
Migut said he didn’t really feel the Rockets “started to click” that season until a Week 9 home game against Illini West. Senior receiver Cameron Reifsteck returned from a neck injury, and Migut said the offense started to ease into a better position.
“Our offense doing good helped our defense, in a way,” Migut said. “The playoffs was pretty smooth for us, because we got into a groove.”
Yes they did, defeating Marshall 42-24, North Mac 55-20, Monticello 41-34 and St. Joseph-Ogden 30-8.
“We had an underdog swagger to us,” Migut said. “Once those games came around, once we won, we had a lot of pride because of the regular season. A lot of people were underwhelmed with what we had done, and we took that pretty personally.”
Hoel and his 2017 Tuscola teammates experienced a different campaign, carrying a 13-0 record into the state title game.
“One of the most important aspects that we had is just a coaching staff that would put together a really good game plan for us,” Hoel said. “Just how much our coaches ... put us in position to be successful, it’s really incredible.”
The wins mattered greatly to Hoel. But so did moments away from the field.
“Some of the stuff that I really remember the most was stuff that happened behind the scenes,” Hoel said. “Defensive dinners that Coach Romine and his wife would put on for us. Team dinners parents would put on for us. The whole aspect of the community coming together was neat to see, especially as an 18-year-old student.”
Atmospheres like nothing else
The first two seasons Hamilton guided Unity to the playoffs in 1994 and 1995, the Rockets’ run ended after just one game.
Now, almost three decades later, Hamilton said once teams reach the quarterfinals, they feel they “have a shot to go all the way.”
“Once you get to that point it’s, ‘Did you catch a break in the brackets? Did you stay healthy?’” Hamilton said. “You hope you put yourself in good positions and (can) be ready to take care of opportunities and limit mistakes.”
Regardless of how long a team is able to keep its postseason aspirations alive, coaches say there’s a palpable buzz in town until the ride is over.
“I just love the atmosphere of school when you get to eight teams left and you feel you have a shot to win,” Romine said. “There’s nothing like a state-championship (week) on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at the school. The excitement level is fever-pitch. I’ve done it five times, and I’ll say this: I’d rather do it five times and be a runner-up five times than do it once and be a state champion because of the experience for the kids.”
Goodlove said his players this season — especially the seniors who struggled through an 0-9 season in 2018 — already are itching to make their playoff presence felt.
“They were very much aware of it. They’re excited. The community’s excited,” Goodlove said. “It’d be nice to host our first playoff game at home.”
Allen’s 2017 and 2018 teams returned to Gibson City with state championships and adoring supporters welcoming them home by lining the streets.
“It’s amazing. I can’t express the gratitude the kids and the coaches had with the community coming out like they did,” Allen said. “That’ll be something you always remember as a coach and as a player.”
Will there be any local teams that receive this heroes’ welcome next month? It remains to be seen.
The fact there is such an opportunity, though, is something to cherish after it evaporated the previous year.
“I wish they didn’t have to have what they’ve had for the past couple years now,” Hoel said, “but having playoff football back is going to be great for everybody.”