DOWNS — After losing three games combined during the last three years, Tri-Valley High School's football team dropped four during the regular season.
Yet the Vikings weren't discouraged and ready to pack away the gear in late October.
"Seeing those harder teams during the season made us know what we had to do and prepared us for what we would see in the playoffs," said Vikings standout halfback Zach Woodring.
A regular-season schedule that featured seven playoff teams from last year made Tri-Valley into what coach Josh Roop called "the best 5-4 team in the state."
Nashville and Pana certainly wouldn't argue.
Victories over fifth-seeded Nashville (14-7) and No. 4 Pana (35-31) have propelled the No. 12 Vikings into Saturday's 2:30 p.m. Class 2A quarterfinal against fourth-ranked and No. 1 seed Decatur St. Teresa (11-0) at Decatur.
Tri-Valley is among four teams with four losses in the state still alive.
"Going in on Saturday mornings and watching film we knew that we were a good team and close, but we weren't doing the little things right," said Tri-Valley quarterback Jake Reeser. "Toward the end of the season we started practicing a lot better ... it's carried on and how we carry ourselves in practice carries over into games."
Tri-Valley has never won more than two straight games this season. But every loss came to a playoff team, including a 27-14 setback in the season opener at St. Teresa.
The Vikings' 50 playoff points (number of opponents' wins) was tied for fourth highest in the state when the pairings were released.
"When we came into the playoffs it was kind of like a whole new team was there ready to practice," said two-way lineman Luke Knecht. "We came to practice ready to go. We kind of thought of it when we came to the playoffs it was a 0-0 record and we started from scratch."
Outside of a 42-0 loss to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley when the Vikings trailed 21-0 at halftime, every other loss (including 21-14 to both Fisher and Eureka) gave Tri-Valley hope for the playoffs.
"I feel we continued to get better and when you do that, that's a key," said Roop, who led the Vikings to the 2015 Class 2A state title. "We felt we've been in every game we lost and didn't close the deal other than Gibson. We knew we were close."
Woodring, who has rushed for 1,199 yards, said late-season practices proved the Vikings were on the right track.
"We could see, especially in the last few weeks, we've improved greatly in practices and we've gone into our games that way," he said.
Roop said the Vikings were young in certain spots heading into the season. Five sophomores have emerged as starters and blended with the upperclassmen.
"There definitely was improvement throughout the practices. Just kind of coming together as a team was the biggest part," said Knecht. "It was learning to work with each other and for each other."
Winning a state title puts a target on a school's back. The seniors were freshmen when Tri-Valley took the championship three years ago and then were favorites in almost every game the next two years.
This season has been different. Heart of Illinois Conference rival GCMS is the defending state champion with all the expectations. The HOIC has produced the Class 2A state champion the last three years — and Tri-Valley still has a shot.
"They're confident and they're confident in what we're doing," said Ropp. "We figured out the first week who we are offensively and who we are defensively. I feel my assistant coaches have done a great job preparing the kids week by week."
Face it — Tri-Valley already was supposed to be in basketball practice. Instead, the Vikings kind of like the underdog role for a change.
"We don't have to play with as much pressure," said Reeser. "There's not that pressure on us, but it also gives us that drive to beat the team everyone expects to win because it's really, really fun."