For Jason Wroble and the Milledge-ville football team, the 2018 season was filled with some incredible highs.
The Missiles ran the table in the NUIC Upstate to win their first conference title since 2008, and most of the games were by wide margins. They qualified for the Class 1A playoffs for the third consecutive year.
In the first round of the playoffs, Milledgeville dominated late and gained a 56-22 win against Fulton. It was particularly satisfying for Wroble, a 1999 Morrison graduate whose main rival during his days with the Mustangs were the Steamers. (Wroble was 3-0 in Wooden Shoe Bowl games as a varsity player).
In the second round of the playoffs, the Missiles pushed eventual state champion Forreston to the brink before falling 22-20 in overtime.
While that loss still stings – the game film has yet to be watched, more than a month later – Wroble can appreciate the 10-win 2018 season after many lean years in his early days at Milledgeville. It wasn’t just losing, it was how the Missiles were losing that made that stretch so difficult.
“It’s hard to believe we came from that spot to where we were one of the best teams in the state this year,” said Wroble, the 2018 Sauk Valley Media football coach of the year.
Wroble, 37, came to Milledge-ville as a history/social studies teacher in 2004, after a year
substitute teaching in Fulton.
He was a volunteer assistant football coach at Milledgeville for three seasons (2005-07) before becoming a paid assistant for the 2008 campaign. That was the last season under longtime coach Gary Hartje, and the Missiles sent him off in style – a 12-0 start before losing to Stark County in the Class 1A semifinals.
When Hartje retired after that season, the head coaching job was Wroble’s. Despite the success of the 2008 squad, there were storm clouds on the horizon.
Milledgeville would soon be dealing with an issue that inevitably creeps up in small schools: a lack of bodies.
The 2010 team had just 18 players in the program, and it didn’t get much better in 2011, when there were 22. Coaches were having to play scout-team defense, just to go 11-on-11 in practices.
The nadir of those 0-9 seasons was forfeiting a 2011 game at East Dubuque.
“We forfeited because we were out of healthy upperclassmen,” Wroble said. “The senior class that year, we had six boys in the whole class. When you get three of them out for football, that’s great numbers, but you can’t field a football team doing that a couple of years back-to-back. When the upperclassmen got hurt, we had to turn to freshmen, and we didn’t think that was a good situation, playing mostly freshmen in a varsity game.”
It was during that stretch, Wroble noted, that Milledgeville’s school board explored becoming part of a football co-op with Polo. It was, and still is, a touchy subject as the schools are rivals, but the Missiles were in full-on survival mode at that point.
A main sticking point was it wasn’t going to be a true co-op. If it had been enacted, Milledgeville players could play football at Polo, but they would be competing as Marcos.
That didn’t fly from Milledgeville’s standpoint, from the board and prideful alumni.
“For a while, yeah, it was a struggle for the program,” Wroble said. “There were going to be some lean years, but we decided to ride it out and see if we could rebound. Fortunately we did.”
Wroble became part football coach, part salesman, particularly for the 2012-14 seasons. He attempted to get any able-bodied student out for football that he could, and if that pitch was successful, the trick was to keep them on the field.
“If you drove kids away, the program was going to go away,” Wroble said. “I have a lot of respect for those kids that played football at that time. It’s one thing to play football when you’re winning. It’s another thing to go on that field on a weekly basis and know it was going to be a long shot to get a W. We still had kids that did it, we had kids that loved it, and it’s because of those groups that we were able to have this kind of year this year.”
Slowly but surely, the program improved. After going 1-8 in 2012, the Missiles pieced together back-to-back 3-6 seasons. Participation was increasing.
The 2015 team was 4-4 heading into a Week 9 game at Warren. Win, and the Missiles would be playoff eligible. Alas, Milledgeville gave up a late touchdown to lose 20-15, but momentum was building.
In 2016, the Missiles broke a long playoff drought by going 5-4, and threw a scare into a 9-0 Ottawa Marquette team before falling 9-6 in the first round.
“I look back at that game, and it was so close,” Wroble said. “I wonder how much expectations would have changed if we would have found a way to win that game. It’s one thing to make it, but now you’re a 16 seed and you knock off a No. 1. That set the stage for us. The kids found out what playoff football was all about.”
Milledgeville took another step forward in 2017. It went 7-2 in the regular season and beat Abingdon-Avon in the playoff opener, but was crushed by eventual undefeated champion Lena-Winslow in the second round.
But the Missiles were exposed to championship greatness in that loss to the Panthers, which provided an invaluable lesson for all involved heading into 2018.
“I saw how hard they worked, and I wanted to work equally as hard as a coach,” Wroble said. “I felt I owed that to them. They worked so hard in the offseason after the disappointing loss to Lena-Winslow. These guys figured out, ‘Hey, if we’re going to get to that level, it’s going to take a lot of time in the offseason.’ I saw how hard they were working, and I needed to bring that same effort as their coach.”
The core of the 2017 Milledgeville team was a group of juniors that Wroble had his eye on since they were in middle school. He resisted the temptation to micro-manage the group over the years, however, as they were already in the capable hands of Hartje, who coached them in junior high and as underclassmen.
“When you have a hall-of-fame coach coaching them, you let him take the reins,” Wroble said.
For the last 2 years, however, Wroble and the rest of the varsity staff guided the Missiles to a combined 18-4 record.
Blayne Kappes, a senior lineman/linebacker, described Wroble’s coaching style as easygoing – but only up to a point.
“He’s more laid back than anything, but he can rule with and iron fist sometimes if we get out of line,” Kappes said. “He did a good job of balancing that out.”
Wroble strives to get the best out of his players on the field, as well as off the field. He serves as a sounding board for players when they have issues, whether they’re football related or not.
“He’s always had an open-door policy, especially when you’re going through bad times in life,” Kappes said. “He’s done that for me, and I know he’s done that for other guys on the team, too. If he knows you’re going through something, he wants to talk to you. Most coaches don’t do that. They just know more about X’s and O’s and winning games. I think Mr. Wroble actually cares about every one of his players.”
“I’ve never been in a classroom where I’ve learned more, not just about history – he’s a history teacher – but about life and more meaningful things,” senior running back/linebacker Nate Rahn added. “He’s taught me a lot.”
Wroble has many irons in the fire at Milledgeville. In addition to being the varsity football coach and a history/social studies teacher, he’s the head boys and girls track & field coach, and is in his first year as athletic director. It’s all about putting his best feet forward to serve the town’s youth.
“I try to be a role model,” Wroble said, “and keep in mind that my actions as a coach and teacher have some weight behind them. I have to be cognizant of that.”
On Tuesday afternoon, just after school, Wroble was in his classroom, and seven of his football players were there, just hanging out. Some were killing time until basketball practice began. Others just wanted to shoot the bull. Wroble teased them about not having anything better to do – but deep down, he was happy his room served as a hangout.
The history lessons he talks about during class hours sink in, he hopes, but it’s the extra time spent with students – be it on a practice field, a football field, or an after-school bull session – in which lasting bonds are forged.
“Every occupation has its days where you really enjoy it, and others where you scratch your head and wonder why you do it,” Wroble said. “As a teacher, I feel like you have more of those days of appreciation, especially as a high school teacher when I see kids in college having success. You feel like you had a little part of it. I always tell kids, ‘I want you to be more successful than I am.’ That’s my goal, and any way I can help them do that, I will.”
High school: Morrison, class of 1999
College: Ausustana, class 2003
Family: Wife, Jessica; children, Cohen, 6; Winnie, 2
FYI: Teacher, coach and athletic director at Milledgeville High School. … Guided Missiles to 10-1 record and the second round of the 1A football playoffs.