My alma mater, Greenville High School, in Greenville, Illinois, is in the semi finals of the Illinois 3A state football tournament. A friend of mine from Indy (and follower of this blog, Marti Reeser ('84)) recommended we go to the game. Greenville is hosting, so we will head over there tomorrow, stay the night, and come home Sunday. My parents and Marti's Mom live there; however Marti's Mom will be out of town. As will my brother's family (they'll be in Memphis for my niece's soccer team's tournament). But my sister's family (St. Louis) and my brother's older daughter (also Rachel Zahniser -- a sophomore at Greenville College) will be joining us for Mario's pizza after the game. (I may get to meet her purported boyfriend.)
The Comets play Unity High School from Tolono, Illinois, a small school in Champaign County. I don't know much about them other than they have a 12-0 record, as does Greenville and the other two remaining schools.
Greenville had no history in the state tournament until my senior year when we also made the semi finals, having gone 7-2 during the regular year and winning our conference. We beat Triad 9-7 in the first round on a last second field goal by Tim Ridings, a senior who hadn't played football before that year. (Not Tim Riggins.) The winning drive was set up by a one-handed, diving interception by our outside linebacker on third and ten with time running out -- why they passed on third down in that situation is a mystery. I guess their coach (I think his name was Belichick) thought they could ice the game with a first down.
We hosted the second round (quarter final -- they've added a round since then) against Harrisburg, a school I had never heard of. They brought bus loads of fans to the game and may have had more in attendance than we did. Harrisburg scored right away, but botched the PAT. With the quick score, I was worried. But when Harrisburg totally bit on our off-tackle option play, a play that transformed our team and our season, I knew we would win. We did, 36-6. The first time we ran it, Harrisburg gang-tackled our fullback, who didn't have the ball, and our halfback, who did, ran 60-some yards untouched for the score. The route was on.
In our third game of that season (this post is like a Tarantino film) we played Alton Marquette, a large Catholic school in our area that "recruited." They were, by reputation, the best team on our schedule. We had a very balanced offense, having already badly beaten Highland and Staunton with a great mixture of runs and passes, led by our senior quarterback, Jeff Sandifer. (Jeff would go on to star in baseball for Greenville College, throwing a no-hitter as a freshman.) We took the lead on our first drive, and after a three-and-out by Marquette, were driving for another score. That's when the season changed. Sandifer's knee gave out for no apparent reason, and he missed the rest of the year. We had as our back-up an untested junior with no skill other than the ability to lead a lost team where it was destined to go. But our destiny wasn't clear right away. We ended up losing to Marquette 17-7, to go to 2-1 entering conference play.
Our next game was homecoming and the opening of the conference season. We played Shelbyville, coached by our coach's brother. In other words, a big game. In the first half we picked up where we left off at Marquette; we stunk. But in the second half, we clicked, and came back to take the lead at the end of the game. Unfortunately, the game wasn't quite over and we got burned on a hail Mary to lose 18-16. A crushing blow. We were now 2-2, and 0-1 in conference. I'll never forget coach O'Boyle's only words after the game, "Have a nice homecoming."
We didn't lose again that season until the semi-finals. We ran off four straight conference wins and beat Nashville easily to end the regular season. We actually tied with Hillsboro for the conference championship at 4-1, but won the tiebreaker because we beat them head-to-head, 36-6. (We had tied them the year before, also at 4-1, but lost the tiebreaker having lost to them. Unfortunately, that year we finished 4-5 having lost all of our non-conference games.) We dominated Hillsboro in every imaginable way. Without a doubt our most satisfying win. Our halfback had 175 yards and three touchdowns . . . in the first half. "Down by the River" was awfully sweet that night.
So it was on to the playoffs, a place no Greenville team had been. Alas, we ran up against Alton Marquette again in the semi-finals and couldn't pull it out, losing 17-0. (They went on to get destroyed by Kankakee McNamara in the final.)
After that, Greenville made a couple trips to the playoffs. But Greenville has been in the playoffs every year since 2002, led by coach Aaron Duff. Last year, Todd Hutchinson (also a GC baseball alum) took over as head coach and went 11-1. So, career, he's 23-1. Greenville has never made the championship game, but maybe this is the year. I hear they have a new field and stadium, so I'm really looking forward to the trip. If they win, according to my brother, they will be a decided underdog in the final, which will be played next Friday in Champaign. I'll update you on the game later this weekend. For more immediate updates, you can check my facebook page. (I know you're all on pins and needles.)
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