For the past 24-plus seasons I've been blessed to cover IHSA football from one end of the state to the other. Every year I am able to see some amazing games and programs led by incredible coaches. But for some reason, the underdog/Cinderella stories always seem to stick with me.
One of my favorites stories over the years goes back to the 2016 season.
I was getting ready to select a Week 9 game to go cover. I've always approached the regular season finale as a bonus playoff football week since so many teams seem to be on the postseason bubble-- a "must-win" to get in. If anything, these win-to-get-in games can either go one way or the other...they are either great, intense games or the opposing team just decided to not show up.
I struggled to find a Week 9 game to attend. Joe Collins --my editor at NBC Sports Chicago-- suggested, "Hey, what about Larkin at Elgin?" My initial thought: "So...what about it?" Larkin, under then-head coach Dragan Teonic was 4-4 and needed a win in the regular season finale to have a shot at a state playoff berth. All the Royals needed was a win over then-lowly Elgin (0-8). Why even bother covering this game? I assumed that Larkin would just roll over the Maroons and lock up a state playoff spot and I would be stuck covering a blowout.
I gave Joe a lot of grief for "highly encouraging" me to check out Larkin at Elgin, with heavy emphasis on "a lot" of grief, yet off I went to Elgin's Memorial Stadium.
Well, turned out that the Maroons, led by head coach Anthony Mason, decided to show up and play. And did they ever. They stunned longtime rival Larkin 26-20 for their first win of the season, got the Town Jug trophy in the process and go the additional bonus of knocking the Royals out of state playoff contention. The game was an intense, hard hitting affaor. It was easily one of the biggest and best crowds I saw all season long. Remember, Elgin hadn't won a game all season long and was outscored 302-92 that season. But for (at least) one night Elgin, was the best team in Elgin. Heck, the way the Maroons played that night they might of been the best team in all of Chicago's western suburbs that Friday evening.
I will always remember the look on then-Larkin head coach Dragan Teonic's face after the loss to Elgin, a combination of shock and sadness. I'm sure the loss bothers Teonic-- even after three years. Teonic, who's since moved onto South Elgin (7-0) and is building the Storm into a power in the Upstate Eight, has had much better days since that fateful night. But it's always the hard losses you'll remember than any of the accomplishments.
Covering Elgin's win over Larkin taught me a lot that night. Never assume a win. Never underestimate the power of what a group of highly-motivated kids and coaches can do on any given Friday night. And in some cases, you truly can throw out the records between two teams because, at least for one night, the records don't matter.
So when you see teams like Elgin, East Aurora, Proviso East and LaSalle-Peru just having their own Cinderella moments in 2019, learn to appreciate them whether you're a fan of those schools or not.
The many people involved from these schools deserve credit with sticking with it and never giving up. The personal struggles that several of these coaches have faced, both personally and professionally, can be overwhelming. In some cases many, many years have come and gone and finally after those years of struggle and sacrifice, they finally have a few minutes in the sun.