EUREKA — Building a high school football program into a traditional winner can take years and many players to create the platform for a breakthrough.
Such trailblazers have been on the mind of sixth-year Eureka High School coach Jason Bachman, whose 8-1 squad is the school's most successful since the 8-2 team of 1986 went 8-1 in the regular season.
"The team we have now is reaping the benefits of the last five years because of those kids working hard and showing them what practices are supposed to be like," Bachman said.
The Hornets, who host Chicago Urban Prep/Englewood (5-4) in a 2 p.m. Class 3A first-round playoff game on Saturday, were ranked 10th in the 3A state poll released Wednesday. They have beaten foes by passing or rushing and stopped them with takeaways or three-and-outs.
"We knew this team had a lot of potential, but there were a lot of question marks at the beginning of the season," said Bachman, who hoped this year would prepare sophomore quarterback Matt Martin to shine in 2019 and 2020.
Instead, Martin, who also plays defensive back, has jumped the gun by leading the team in rushing (859 yards), passing (954) and intercepting (five). He has completed 49 percent (52 of 106) of his passes for 12 touchdowns while only being intercepted three times.
"Matt is special," Bachman said. "He is just driven to be great. I think he's going to graduate from Eureka High School as one of the better quarterbacks who has ever played there."
Martin beats would-be tacklers more with elusiveness than speed. His longest run of the year was a 58-yarder.
"His O line is doing a very good job," said Bachman, who graduated four linemen from a team that rushed for nearly 3,000 yards.
Paving the way this year are sophomore left tackle Thomas Cahill (6-3, 260), junior left guard Andrew King (6-1, 180), junior center Joel Baer (5-10, 2010), sophomore right guard Conner McDonald (6-1, 195) and junior right tackle Sterling Spencer (5-11, 185).
"They have done a spectacular job," Martin said. "Hitting it hard in the weight room in the offseason definitely helped them. They have worked on the little things, which have made a big difference."
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What the linemen lack in size, they make up for in speed. They've given Martin enough time to find Alex Brittain, who has 21 catches for 280 yards and four TDs. Brittain is among only seven seniors on the roster.
"Alex Brittain is probably my best all-around football player," said Bachman, who also uses Brittain at outside linebacker. "When I need a catch, we throw to Alex."
Aiding the ground game is another sophomore, Hunter Gladson, who has 92 carries for 518 yards and six TDs.
The leading tackler is middle linebacker Coleton Jenssen, a 190-pound junior transfer from East Peoria who has 27 solo tackles and 47 assists.
"He's been a huge addition," said Bachman, whose team has forced 17 more turnovers than it has committed. "That is by far the best in my tenure as a head coach."
Two keys to the season were come-from-behind victories over LeRoy (19-14 in week one) and Deer Creek-Mackinaw (19-18 in week four). As important as those victories were, a 41-12 loss to reigning Class 2A state champion GCMS in week two lit a fire.
"It humbled us a little bit," Martin said. "That definitely helped us towards the end of the season. Staying humble in every moment whether you are winning or losing ... in the end, that will help you."
"Losing was good for us because we don't want to feel that again," he said.
Eureka has gone 6-4 each of the past two seasons, both ending in playoff losses at Byron.
"It's great to be 8-1 and not run into a 9-0 powerhouse in week one of the playoffs," said Bachman, who doesn't want the Hornets to overlook Saturday's No. 14-seeded foe. "They are dangerous in a lot of different areas."
The heartbreak of recent playoff trips was not in vain, according to Brittain.
"With the last couple years going to the playoffs, a lot of the older guys have shown us how to take on a leadership role," he said. "They've really paved the way for us and set us up for success."
Contact Randy Sharer at (309) 820-3405. Follow him on Twitter: @PG_sharer