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Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley football players, from left, Alex Rosenbaum, Mitch McNutt and Luke Freehill, lift their Class 2A state championship trophy high after defeating Maroa-Forsyth on Friday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. GCMS was the third straight Heart of Illinois Conference team to win the 2A title, following Tri-Valley (2015) and Deer Creek-Mackinaw (2016).

DAVID PROEBER, THE PANTAGRAPH

Josh Roop hosted a "watch party" on Friday at his home in Downs. On the guest list were members of Roop's Tri-Valley High School football coaching staff along with some family and friends.

They gathered to tune into Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's Class 2A state championship game against Maroa-Forsyth. 

Two years ago, Roop and the Vikings were on the field at Northern Illinois' Huskie Stadium defeating Auburn for the 2A title. On Friday, they were fans ... as in fanatics.

"You would have thought we were from Gibson City," Roop said. "We were cheering and screaming. We had rally caps on. We were pulling for them big-time."

A few miles to the west, Job Linboom tuned in as well. A year ago, he was coaching Deer Creek-Mackinaw to the 2A championship. As this year's terrific title game built toward a memorable finish, his pulse raced.

"I was cheering really hard for Gibson City," he said. "It came down to the fourth quarter and things were looking kind of rough at one point. Even though I have no personal connection to Gibson City, I would have been heartbroken for them if they had not won it.

"What was in it for me? Nothing personally. But to see our conference hoist the trophy for the third year in a row was really neat."

That's the thing about the Heart of Illinois Conference. You don't just compete in it. You live it, take pride in it and take exception at any perceived slight against it. There is an all-for-one mindset you don't find in every league, or even most leagues. 

So when GCMS scored the winning touchdown Friday with just over a minute to play, the celebration of the Falcons' 38-32 victory traveled well beyond Gibson City, Melvin and Sibley.

"I believe the Heart of Illinois as a whole does a good job of promoting its member schools and the schools do a good job of celebrating successes within the conference and supporting each other," said B.J. Zeleznik, head football coach and athletic director at LeRoy.

"You have school districts that are similar in vision, similar in values. You look overall ... male, female, all seasons ... the number of state trophies brought home by the HOIC is remarkable. You have quality coaches and quality communities. Throw in a whole bunch of talented student athletes and good things happen."

The consecutive titles by three different conference members is a first in 2A football. It was nearly a four-peat.

In 2014, Fieldcrest led 20-6 early in the second half of the semifinals, but Eastland-Pearl City rallied to knock off the Knights and won the title easily the following week.

Friday, the conference was on the mind of GCMS coach Mike Allen after his school's first state title.

"Back-to-back-to-back, HOIC three years in a row with great company in Josh and Job," he said. "The HOIC is tough, but there's a lot of tough conferences. We're just fortunate enough to play in the HOIC."

There was a time "tough" and "HOIC" were not synonymous in regard to football. The first few years after the league's 2006 inception were marked by mostly early playoff exits. That began to change in 2009 when Lexington reached the 1A finals, but the league then was shut out of title-game berths until Tri-Valley's 2013 1A runner-up finish.

"Now here we are ... it's 2017 and we have three titles in a row," Zeleznik said.

That brings a smile to Linboom, who said, "It used to make my blood boil when I would hear about how superior northern Illinois football was to central Illinois football. Nobody can argue now that the best football in 2A is in the Heart of Illinois. It feels pretty redemptive."

Roop agreed, saying, "I think we've shown we can compete with anybody up north."

They compete with each other as well. Last year, Dee-Mack's players talked of how watching Tri-Valley win the 2015 title motivated them. This year, GCMS was able to feed off of the Tri-Valley and Dee-Mack championships.

And next year? 

"I think it's only going to get better," Zeleznik said. "I think you'll see schools continue to push each other and still support each other along the way."

It's how it should be.

Long live the HOIC.

Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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