Rochester head coach Derek Leonard gets emotional as he talks to his players after their Class 5A state football championship victory over St. Rita Saturday in Huskie Stadium at Northern Illinois University.
Rochester head coach Derek Leonard gets emotional as he talks to his players after their Class 5A state football championship victory over St. Rita Saturday in Huskie Stadium at Northern Illinois University. — Mark Busch - mbusch@shawmedia.com

Playing up against a Derek Leonard-led Rochester football team must be a maddening proposition.

It might resemble sitting at a card table against someone who has an ace up his sleeve at all times.

And another in his boot.

Rochester won its eighth state title in 10 seasons and its first in Class 5A, with an innovative offensive game plan and inspired defensive effort during a 42-28 win over St. Rita.

The windy, blustery conditions on Saturday at Huskie Stadium didn't look an ideal set-up for Rochester, who have an dizzying array of offensive options, a hallmark of each of Leonard's teams. Leonard admitted he was considering going to a more conservative attack based on the conditions. But if you've seen Leonard's teams play in the past, conservative might be the last word you'd use to describe them.

"If the rain would have been even steadier or harder, I might have, I was close, I knew he (Rochester quarterback Clay Bruno) has a great arm," Leonard said. "I thought wind wise we would be fine, but the rain always scares you. The wet ball. No quarterback likes to throw that wet ball, so I was close. But I'm glad I didn't."

It took one drive to demonstrate he'd made the right choice. Rochester ran 10 plays, converting on fourth down once and a third-and-17 on another instance and seemed in fluid, perfect control throughout.

"We jumped on them early, I think our fast no-huddle, I don't think they had seen anything like that," Leonard said. "When we get rolling, and we're that kind of team, especially with this group, we get rolling."

Rochester would score on two of its next three possessions, both on touchdown passes from Bruno to sophomore sensation Hank Beatty. Even though the game was only midway through the second quarter, at that point, it wasn't a matter of whether Rochester would win, it was by how much.

"I knew we could compete, I felt confident in our team, I painted this as a story. It tops off the decade," Leonard said. "Everybody was like, go play 5A, and to play a team like them that comes down. This group was special. I think they believed in it. I knew it was going to be tough."

It may very well have been, but Leonard and his team made it look easy with an innovative array of offensive plays and a bold style that he credits largely to his father, Ken Leonard, the current winningest coach at Sacred Heart Griffin in the state of Illinois with 387 victories and counting.

"I learned from the best, he was the ultimate," Derek Leonard said. "He built that foundation of let's have fun, let's find ways to get your best players the ball type of coach. And that's fun for me, that's what I love."

Others served as inspirations as well.

"I learned from guys like Otto Zeman (former Riverside-Brookfield coach). People that were doing five-wide. When he was doing that, like I was still a kid, and that was awesome," Derek Leonard said. "Kind of when Urban Meyer, started it, with that run-and-gun. I grew up in it, it was all I wanted to do."

"I don't know if there's one great answer, I'm trying to give a lot of people credit, a lot of people taught me," Leonard said. "But when it all comes down to it, I learned from the best, I believe in the state and maybe the country at what he does."

And when he was asked if was voluntarily going to choose to stay in 5A for future Rochester playoff runs, Leonard didn't have a chance to answer before his father weighed in.

"No, he's going back to 4A," Ken Leonard said.