ROCKFORD – The season started for the Boylan football team the second Eric Davila's field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired in a Class 5A quarterfinal last year.
Since then, coach John Cacciatore said, the Titans have been on a mission, proving themselves on a week-in, week-out basis. And that mission got a big payoff Saturday in a 19-16 quarterfinal win against Sycamore with the Titans linebacker Xavier Bryant returning two fumbles for touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"It's a testament to our kids," Cacciatore said. "This season started a year ago at this time. Sterling kicked that field goal and beat us in a quarterfinal game a year ago, at Sterling on their field, that that was the start of the nucleus right there. We talked about the work we had to put in during the offseason, the discipline.
"Our kids are coming from basketball, from baseball, from wrestling. They came from all different sports and bonded to do the work they've done to have it pay off here. It's just one more example of the fruit to our labor we couldn't be happier about."
The No. 2 Titans (12-0) head to St. Rita (9-3) next week for a semifinal and a berth to the title game at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb on the line.
And while Cacciatore wouldn't call it a statement win, Bryant said he hopes other teams in the state – including Mascoutah and Rochester on the other side of the bracket – took notice of the type of team the Titans are.
"Any team that matches up against us is going to know we're going to play hard, tough-nosed football," Bryant said. "We're going to give them 120% all 48 minutes."
Cacciatore said he felt like – even undefeated and with a better seed than the No. 3 Spartans – the Titans were underdogs heading in.
"I think everybody, from what I read, picked Sycamore to win this game," Cacciatore said. "I just recently had a military veteran come tell our kids on veterans day to beware the underdog. That's how we felt going in, seedings aside. Seedings are a whole other circumstance. Our kids played with a chip on their shoulder and we'll put that chip back on there this week."
Chip or not, quarterback John Starck said the team practices the same each week, and nothing changes heading into the St. Rita game.
"Every week and all summer we practice for every team the same way," Starck said. "So that doesn't really matter to us as long as we prepare the right way things will go our way."
Things certainly went the Titans' way on Saturday. Sycamore ran the final 35 plays of the game and outgained Boylan, 357-98. But Bryant came up with the plays when his team needed them.
With Sycamore up 16-7 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Bryant scooped up a Sycamore fumble and ran it back 89 yards for a score.
But Sycamore mounted a 16-play drive, running almost 10 minutes off the clock. It turns out, that would work in the Titans' favor as another turned into a 70 yard run back for Bryant.
Dayvion Foreman blocked a potential tying kick as time expired, and the Titans had their semifinal berth.
"We got here last year but we fell short," Starck said. "We lost on a field goal then, so it only feels right we advance with a (blocked) field goal, too."
Starck said he had faith in the defense, and he had to since the Titans offense last took the field with 5:32 left in the third quarter.
"The last time I touched the ball was mid third quarter, I think," Starck said. "But I trust our defense. It's amazing obviously. I know their doing their job and I have nothing to worry about."
And now, in a season full of evaluation, the Titans have at least one more shot at it.
"What we talked about as we entered the season was to find out how good are we. Where do we stand?" Cacciatore said. "We had just come out of an Elite 8 game and now we're one of the last four teams standing. We want to find out again this week. So we're going to go back in and evaluate all over again."