Rochester coach Derek Leonard had hoped that he and his father Ken, the longtime coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin in Springfield, would qualify for the state finals. "It would have been a lot of fun but it didn't happen," Derek said.
Last Saturday, his father's team lost to Morris in the semifinals. Last year, the elder Leonard lost to Joliet Catholic in the semifinals. The year before, he lost in the quarterfinals. Derek won state championships in 2010 and 2011 and is seeking another against Rock Island Alleman in the Class 4A final on Friday in Champaign.
"We've been lucky and we've been blessed," Derek said. "It's all about hard work. The kids want to be like the kids ahead of them. The interesting thing is Rochester only has had football since 1998. A lot of these parents never played football. They never had a program."
Leonard, 31, in his eighth year as head coach at Rochester, is a graduate of Sacred Heart-Griffin. He played for his father. After attending Illinois College, he coached at Prairie Central in Fairbury for two years, then became head coach at Rochester.
"Being in a position to win three state titles in a row is pretty cool," he said. "I never would have dreamed of that when I became head coach eight years ago. This is awesome. It speaks about the coaching staff, the hard work of the players, the community and the youth football program.
"To make it to this level three times and the semifinals the year before that means you have to be clicking on all cylinders, not just one element. And being a small public school (enrollment: 670), it's something everybody can be proud of."
How good is this team? Leonard admits his 2010 squad, headed by quarterback Wes Lunt, wide receiver Zach Grant and running back Colton Glazebrook, was his dream team. "They were a once-in-a-lifetime team, so much talent. They went 14-0 and could have beaten any team in any class," he said.
"Last year caught me off guard. We won in a different way. We had an average defense but got hot offensively at the right time. This team reminds me of two years ago. It has a lot better defense than last year and more balance on offense."
Rochester, which is 51-3 in four years under Leonard, has won 11 games in a row since dropping a 29-26 to Sacred Heart-Griffin in Week 2. The Rockets, who are averaging 41.6 points per game, crushed Harrisburg last Saturday 49-22, scoring on seven of their first eight possessions to build a 49-0 lead at halftime.
Offensively, Rochester is led by quarterback Austin Green and running back Garrett Dooley. Green, who is committed to Eastern Illinois, has passed for 2,800 yards and 25 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes. He also has rushed for 900 yards in a spread option offense.
Dooley, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who is committed to play linebacker at Wisconsin, has rushed for 1,400 yards and 30 touchdowns. And receiver Blake Pasley has caught 75 for 1,100 yards.
"Last year, Lunt (now at Oklahoma State) would kill you with the pass," Leonard said. "But Austin can beat you with his legs and arms. It makes it more difficult to defend our offense. We were more one-dimensional last year."
Defensively, Dooley and 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior linebacker Reed Watson anchor the 4-4 alignment. Drake Leeper, a 6-foot-1, 250-pounder, is Rochester's best lineman on both sides of the ball.
Leonard scouted Rock Island Allman on Saturday night in its 23-7 victory at Evergreen Park. Two years ago, Rochester defeated Alleman 24-7 for the Class 4A title. "We know what they do and they know what we do. We must stop their option, their run, and make them pass. If they just run on you, you're in big trouble," he said.
Rock Island Alleman (12-1), which lost only to Rock Island 10-7 on a last-second field goal, is a defense-minded team that has allowed only 116 points. The Pioneers, led by Chad Weatherell, John Tracey, Tom Noe, Ben West, Scott Schilb and Adam Hoogerwerf, have permitted no more than one touchdown in nine games.
"We have a good tackling team," said coach Dave DeJaegher, who is 34-4 in the last three years and produced state runner-ups in 2005 and 2010. "We run a 5-2 defense. That's what we've always done. We've stuck with it. It's what I know how to coach, what I am comfortable teaching.
"We won't blow anyone away with statistics but we like to mix it up. It's a fun group to coach. They came in determined after losing a heart-breaker (19-18 to Evergreen Park in the second round) last year. They came in with an attitude to have a good senior year. Everybody steps up at different times."