This is a weird time.
Last week we were eating turkey and watching the state football finals, and now Bureau Valley and Rock Falls play a Christmas tournament boys basketball game against each other Saturday at Hall’s Colmone Classic.
Oh, and the decade will be over in 4 weeks. This 33-year-old will have lived in a whopping five decades.
What makes me happy, though, is that once more, control of Illinois small-school football remains in the northern half of the state.
If you’re as lazy as Rip Van Winkle, here’s a reminder that there is great high school football played in northern Illinois.
Northern Illinois University has hosted the state finals in every odd-numbered year since 2013, and teams in the northern part of the bracket have 12 wins and four losses in 1A through 4A – and two of the losses were at the hands of state power Rochester.
Teams from the north bracket are 22-6 overall in small-school title tilts since 2013, which includes games that take place at the University of Illinois in even-numbered years.
Lena-Winslow won 1A, Newman won 2A and Richmond-Burton won 4A this year, and Byron dropped a heartbreaker to Williamsville in the 3A game.
Newman and Lena-Winslow have won titles in the same year three times, also winning together in 2010 and 2013. The Comets and Panthers have outscored their state opponents 256-89 in those games.
In fact, defense seemed to be at a premium for the most part for each of this year’s small-school teams.
The combined point total for the small-school games is the most on a single day since the expansion to eight classes in 2001. Winners outscored opponents 189-90, for 279 points. The previous best for a four-game session was the 5A through 8A session in 2011 with 258 points – 115 of those came in Montini’s 70-45 5A win over Joliet Catholic.
Panthers coach Ric Arand told me not long after his team won in 2010 that a fellow conference coach had wished his team good luck and to bring the 1A trophy “back up north where it belongs.”
In one of the boldest questions I ever asked a coach who had just lost a championship game, I asked Tuscola coach Rick Reinhart in 2010 after losing to the Panthers if he thought there was perhaps something in the water “up north.” He gave me an angry look and sternly said that if I was suggesting that teams up north were better than teams in the south, that it’s “absolutely false.” I haven’t asked such a question since.
Since the Northwest Upstate Illini was formed in 2001, teams in those conferences have won 14 titles. Lena-Winslow now leads the conference with four titles, breaking a tie with Forreston and Dakota, who have won three each. Galena has two championships, and Eastland-Pearl City and Aquin each have one.
Polo, an NUIC member in all other sports, also added an 8-man state title to that list this year.
This year brings the close to a decade of the 2010s. Newman kicked off the 90s with the first of its now six state titles. Since 1990, teams in the Upstate Illini, NUIC, Three Rivers and Big Northern have combined to win 32 titles. The Comets lead with six wins, and Stillman Valley is next with five.
Also winning titles in that span were Stockton in 1991, 5 years before the Northwest Illinois Conference merged with the NUIC; and South Beloit in 2002 as members of the Four Rivers, a splinter conference that broke off from the Upstate Illini and later rejoined.
Richmond-Burton’s title this year comes only a few years removed from its departure from the BNC to the Kishwaukee Valley Conference. The Rockets brought home the BNC’s first state title in 1992, and lost a close 42-39 4A title game in 2011 to Rochester.
The 4A and 5A games in 2011 had 196 total points. I covered the former and watched the latter, and both were tough for this defensive-minded scribe to witness.
Rochester has won eight state titles since 2010, and this year was its first in 5A. The Rockets are Illinois’ team of the decade, and it’s not even close when considering the number of trophies, having gone 125-12. Newman, meanwhile, is 113-12 with two titles.
Making the leap from 4A to 5A is tough, and even though Rochester plays in the Central State 8 with Springfield and Decatur schools, its triumph is nothing short of extraordinary, especially when handing St. Rita a 42-28 loss in the title tilt – and St. Rita was playing down from their usual confines of 7A due to the multiplier waiver.
Boylan is the only team this decade to win back-to-back state titles while moving up one class for the second championship. The Titans did that in 2010 in 6A and 2011 in 7A, and that gap is just as great as the one between 4A and 5A.
Among downstate football teams, only the Titans and East St. Louis in 2008 and 2016 have won 7A titles. No downstate team has won in 8A, and the only ones that large are in the Metro East.
I covered both Boylan title games, and consider the 7A win to be the best state football finals accomplishment this decade.
McCombs gets hall call: Terry McCombs, a 1965 graduate of Rock Falls High School, recently received a prestigious honor for his 50 years of coaching football: a spot in the National Federation of High Schools’ Hall of Fame.
McCombs, 72, joins an Illinois roll call that includes star athletes such as Red Grange and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, as well as numerous coaches, administrators
and game officials who have left a lasting impact on the state’s prep sports.
Larry Wilcoxen, longtime local school administrator and official, was inducted in 2002.
McCombs helped lead Rock Falls to an 8-1 season in 1964, which was the last time the Rockets beat Dixon, Newman and Sterling in the same year. He later played at Western Illinois University and began his coaching career in 1969 as Peoria Manual’s assistant freshman coach.
He later went to Highland Park and then East Leyden in suburban Franklin Park, where he won a state title as an assistant in 1977, and was head coach at Bloomington from 1978-92. He then moved on to Downers Grove South, winning another title as defensive coordinator in 2001, and added another at Normal Community in 2006 in the same role. He also coached at Lemont, Reed-Custer and with the Bloomington Extreme indoor football team.
McCombs’ last stop was at Minooka, where he served as head coach in 2017 and was an assistant for two more seasons.
Heart problems have hindered McCombs in recent years, and he told the Bloomington Pantagraph’s Randy Kindred last month that he is likely done coaching.
He will be inducted at the group’s annual convention July 20-23 in Lincoln, Neb.