MILFORD — Chris Schroeder could faintly hear whistles from the Milford/Cissna Park football team’s practice just down the road Thursday as she began cooking up ribeye sandwiches for the Bearcats’ final team dinner, ahead of tonight’s 8-Man Association state championship game.
Schroeder, who graduated from Milford in 1978, won’t go to today’s 7 p.m. game between top-seeded Milford/Cissna Park (11-0) and second-seeded Polo (11-0) at Monmouth College.
Instead, she’ll be at her restaurant, I Don’t Care Grill and Chill, while letting some of her younger workers make the three-hour trip to see the Bearcats vie for a second consecutive 8-man state title.
But that doesn’t mean Schroeder isn’t caught up in the emotions associated with the team’s two-year run of dominance.
“They just bring so much excitement to the town,” she said. “It’s just entertaining for us, even if we don’t get to go.”
So, as the grills sizzle, Schroeder will tune her radio to the game. Just like she did two weeks ago, when the Milford volleyball team won a Class 1A sectional final.
“It’s very nerve-racking when you’re listening to it on the radio and you’re not there seeing it,” she said. “But you have to keep in the loop.”
Successful high school football teams have a way of sweeping small towns off their collective feet. In recent years, thousands have traveled from Gibson City, Tolono and Monticello to state championship games, draining the locales of a large percentage of their populace for a day.
Milford wasn’t always that kind of town. While the locals always were supportive of their high school teams, they didn’t have much football success to cheer about in the decades preceding last year’s switch to 8-man football. The Bearcats made the IHSA 11-man playoffs only four times in 20 years ahead of 2018’s change.
Before last season, Milford, which formed a football cooperative with Cissna Park in 2009, hadn’t won a playoff game since 1994. Principal Steve Totheroh, a lifelong resident, saw the writing on the wall during the last game of the 2017 season, in which the Bearcats finished 2-7.
“We had 14 players dressed for the varsity game,” Totheroh said, “and the opposing team had 14 coaches.”
Playing 11-man football the following year simply wasn’t an option, Totheroh and coach Clint Schwartz knew, and even merging with a third school would be difficult because the entire setup then would be forced to face bigger opponents come playoff time.
So when the experimental 8-man league began, it presented the Bearcats with a lifeline. They flourished in the new format, losing just once on their way to the inaugural state championship.
And the towns got swept up in the excitement. On Tuesday, the windows of Milford businesses were painted with supportive messages for the team.
Longtime Milford resident Nick Allen can’t escape the chatter around town, even though the senior receiver isn’t exactly a talkative person.
“A lot of people want (to talk about the season),” he said. “Word gets around quickly because everybody knows each other.”
Around 1,000 people show up to home games, Totheroh said. He expects plenty to travel for tonight’s contest, for which the schools will provide a fan bus.
And, like Schroeder, plenty more supporters will be back in Milford and Cissna Park, listening nervously to the game on the radio.
“I think that, when you have success in athletics, whether it’s Milford or St. Joe or whatever, it just seems to make everything else run a little bit smoother,” Totheroh said. “People in the school, people in the community have a little hop in their step and are just able to be proud of accomplishments.”