From the outside it shaped up as a year of lopsided losses, licking wounds and a collective, “What are we doing? We’re out of our league.”
That’s the thing about judgments from the outside. Too often they fail to account for what’s happening on the inside.
There was a lot of good going on in University High School’s preseason football camp. We reported on some of it the first week of practice, when a headline summed up the connection between John Johnson, a veteran coach in his first year at U High, and his team of teenagers: “Johnson’s enthusiasm reciprocated by U High players.”
A week later we went back. This time, senior quarterback Doug Holmes looked a reporter in the eye and said of U High’s step up from the Corn Belt to the Central State Eight Conference: “I feel like we belong.”
He wasn’t alone. We know that now.
There are a lot of good stories in high school football. You can count on that every season. One of the best this year is at U High, where with two weeks left in the regular season the Pioneers are nowhere near the 0-9, gloom and doom many projected for them.
Instead, they have a chance to make the playoffs.
Friday night’s 34-20 win at Springfield Lanphier lifted them to 3-4, putting their postseason fate where every team wants it … in their hands. Win the final two games and they’re in.
“That would be really good frosting on top of the cake,” Johnson said Saturday. “We have (Springfield) Southeast (1-6) next and that will be a tough game at their place. Then we have Chatham Glenwood (5-2) at our place and Chatham is a good team.
“But we’ll be playing for something. To even be talking about it (the playoffs) right now is a real plus for the players. I complimented them last night about their attitude and trying to do everything right to prove everybody wrong."
Yes, there have been lopsided losses, notably back-to-back defeats to perennial state powers Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin (41-7) and Rochester (44-7). A third state-ranked team followed, but U High played Decatur MacArthur to a 14-7 game most of the way before falling 21-7 at Decatur.
“I think that gave us confidence that we could play with a really good team,” Johnson said.
Ensuing wins over Jacksonville and Lanphier have come despite injuries. Four players were listed as out prior to the Lanphier game and others were injured Friday.
Lamar Conard needed 10 stitches after having his helmet ripped off on a play. Brock Griffin suffered a bone bruise. Spencer Parker injured a thumb. There’s been a lot of that this year … three other Pioneers have dealt with thumb injuries.
Several have worn protective “clubs” on their hands, Johnson said.
“We have a lot of casts on kids, but they keep playing,” he said. “It’s been ‘next man up’ because we’ve had a lot of injuries. It was funny, last night I tried to run a play with five wide receivers and we didn’t have five. I had to put a running back out there.”
None of that stopped Holmes from throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He is the area’s leading passer with 1,374 yards.
A third-year starter, Holmes took his share of lumps the previous two seasons. Now, his coach will tell you he is “a leader” in every way.
In the preseason, Holmes said the U High seniors had “taken it upon us to set the foundation for the new conference.”
Consider it done.
Through their play, the message to future Pioneers has been “you can do this” in the Central State Eight. It isn’t easy. It won’t be easy. But, “you can do this.”
That brings a smile to Johnson, whose long coaching career includes stints at the high school, college and professional levels. Former head coach of the Bloomington Edge indoor team, he was an assistant for four years with the Green Bay Packers, including the 1996 Super Bowl championship team.
He’s had fun at every level, but never more than this.
“Helping these kids with the uphill challenge of this new conference, they’ve given me new life,” Johnson said. “They never give me any back talk. You ask them to do something and they say, ‘Yes sir, we’re going to try.’”
It’s a good story. You can see that.
Even from the outside.