Last year, they were a Cinderella story. This year, the slipper still fits—although you may not want to call this a Cinderella story much longer.
Phillips head coach Troy McAllister will lead the Wildcats back to a state championship game this Friday night for the second straight year.
The obvious question: how does this year feel different for McAllister?
"I'm a worrier, especially right before a game," McAllister said. "But with this group I'm just much less worried. Last year I needed to go in with the rah-rah type of speeches. This year, this group is just much more relaxed compared to last year….they come in ready to play. This team just knows what to expect each week and each level of the state playoffs."
The 2015 Wildcats’ approach and focus undoubtedly started at the end of last season, one that saw them on the short end of a 49-28 decision in the 4A title game at Champaign Memorial’s Stadium. They did, though, join the 1982 Robeson Raiders as the only teams from the Chicago Public League to advance to an IHSA football state championship game. The Chicago Public League, for all of its successes in other sports –especially basketball-- have yet to bring home an IHSA state football title.
Phillips has transformed itself over five years from being one of the worst performing schools in the CPL to one of the best. Now, it’s all about finishing. McAllister will never forget what transpired last November after the loss to Rochester. It was an exceptionally long bus ride back to Chicago.
"It was just a miserable feeling," McAllister recalled. "The bus ride was quiet at first until the kids started to get hungry and then they came around. I just remember back and walking off the field and thinking to myself that we just weren't ready. We will be ready this time around."
[CLASS 4A PREVIEW: Phillips vs. Belleville Althoff]
Having his team ready and prepared hasn't been an issue too often for McAllister and his staff. But one of the big turning points for McAllister and Phillips goes back to the 2013 season after a humbling 41-8 loss to Geneseo in the 4A quarterfinals.
"That year we had a false sense of who we were and how good we were. We came off a big win against Evergreen Park and we went into Geneseo all confident and they just whacked us. I walked off the field knowing we didn't prepare the team as well as we should of prepared them. I wasn't going to let that happen ever again."
The following winter, McAllister, along with Athletic Director John Byrne, loaded up the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule with Wing T and power option running teams-- which is generally the offense of choice among Geneseo and several traditional 4A powers. The Wildcats over the past two seasons have played the likes of power running teams in Stillman Valley, Carmel, Naperville North and several others to great success, including a 24-7 win over Geneseo in the quarterfinal round.
So has the city of Chicago gotten on board with the Wildcats again this postseason?
"It's definitely building up," according to McAllister. “Monday was a prime example of how people from all over the city are coming around to us. Everyone who was driving by the practice was honking their horns and cheering for us as they passed by the field. Earlier in the day, I got a call from Jesse Chick at Simeon who wanted to let us know that the Simeon family and everyone in the CPL was behind us and in our corner. That call was really important. I also got a call from guy who lives on the Northwest Side. He's just some regular guy who has been following us all season and just wanted to wish us luck and how excited he is for the state championship game. I also got a call from the Mayor (Rahm Emanuel) wishing us luck."
"In just one day you have it all covered, from the neighborhood to the rest of the Public League, to the North Side and the Mayor. It's a pretty good feeling."
Phillips takes on Belleville Althoff at 7 p.m. Friday. The game can be seen live on CSN+, csnchicago.com/ihsa and via the NBC Live Extra App.