By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
For seven years now, the preseason talk in the NIC-10 has sounded like a broken record. The big three and the little seven, almost like they are two separate divisions within the conference.
The big three refers to Rockford Boylan, Machesney Park Harlem and Rockton Hononegah. Boylan, as everyone knows, has won more than 60 straight games coming into the season, but over that same time, Harlem and Hononegah have only lost one game outside of this group.
Even more concerning for the conference is Boylan has seemed, over the last three years, to widen the gap between themselves and the other two, almost making it Boylan, a big two, and everyone else.
But the gap is closing. Rockford Auburn, which entered last year with a 35-game losing streak, won five games and made the playoffs. Rockford East, Belvidere and Rockford Guilford have all given those three teams some fits. With a lot of new coaches, program support and direction, it seems as though those other seven NIC-10 teams are on the precipice of breaking through.
“The Belvidere schools can be very dangerous in our conference, and I think the Rockford schools are moving in the right direction with some good coaching and some really good facilities,” Auburn Head Coach Dan Appino said.
The key part is getting the kids to buy in to programs and believe they can compete. Part of the process, as new Belvidere coach Chuck Leonard is trying to impart, is stepping back a little and looking at the big picture and learning what the students want to get from football.
“My job as a head coach is to make them as successful as I possibly can,” Leonard said. “You tell me what your goals are and what you want to accomplish, and it’s my job and the coaching staff’s job to make that happen.”
If you ask him, Coach Appino will be quick to point out not only the work he and his staff did during last year’s turnaround, but also the students’ response to that message.
Leonard is also quick to point out that the Belvidere seniors are very responsive to what he is saying. And getting your players to buy in to the program is a big part of the success.
From there, it comes down to wins and losses. And as Leonard said, one win can go a long way in changing the tide.
“It takes one against the big three that everyone talks about,” he said. “One of those three for the kids to realize we can play with those guys.”
Of course, the flip side is that as the other seven schools catch up, it pushes the other three to work that much harder to stay ahead. Harlem Head Coach Jim Morrow has seen his team endure a few close calls the last few season, including a come-from-behind win at Auburn, which has helped keep his kids focused.
“The teams that are getting better are always keeping us on our toes,” he said. “(Auburn) really challenged us, and it was nice for a change to really see the potential of teams that were once considered doormats. It makes it a meaningful football game when you have to struggle and compete and leave it all out there.”
It also helps push his team to reach its own goal. As the conference has separated, so has the very top.
Harlem has suffered some very tough losses at the hands of Boylan. There was a season-ending blowout with the conference title on the line, as well as blowing a 20-0 lead at Boylan. He just wants what every team in the conference wants: to end the streak.
“I’d like to see them be 2-0 going into that third game, because I would like for us to be the team to beat Boylan,” Morrow said. “I love a challenge, and that is why I love to play those guys, because they are tough as nails and know how to finish.”
And finish is something that the Boylan Titans try to do each and every time out. Something that gets lost among the streak itself has been the Titans’ ability to reach near-peak performances every time out.
Whether it is Harlem, Hononegah, Auburn, East, or any other team, the Titans seemingly take the preparation as if each team will be the one to end the streak unless they give it their all. With that work, not only have the Titans continued to win, but they have not had a close call since Harlem jumped out to that 20-point lead two years ago.
The Titans do not actively discuss the streak among themselves, but they all know it is there. And they are doing their part to ensure that when the day comes that someone ends the streak, that they will earn that victory.
“One game at a time is something that has always worked for us,” Boylan Coach John Cacciatore said. “It’s a testament to the kids to not allow it to happen. It’s a big push by all the staff and by all the kids to prepare all of our kids that it is one day at a time, one week at a time, and not to look too far down the road.”
From the Aug. 28-Sept. 3, 2013, issue