The Jacobs football team aims to take its 2011 team motto from theory to reality Friday night.
"Taking the next step" is the motivational slogan driving the undefeated Golden Eagles, who made progress last year by reaching the state playoffs for the first time since 2006 and finishing with a record of 6-4.
All things considered, 2010 was a pretty good campaign in the program's first season under veteran coach Bill Mitz. But taking the next step means being better than pretty good.
Taking the next step means not just competing with the elite teams in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference -- where perennial state contenders Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake South and Cary-Grove lurk -- it means beating some of them.
Jacobs couldn't beat those teams last year, though few could. The Golden Eagles were blown out in a then-FVC crossover game by Prairie Ridge (33-6) and demoralized at home by Cary-Grove (49-21). They stayed close to CL South until the fourth quarter only to lose 28-14 to the eventual Valley Division champion.
Losing to those three programs is old news in Algonquin. Jacobs has lost 10 straight games against Prairie Ridge, nine straight against Cary-Grove and has dropped eight of the last 10 meetings with CL South.
These Golden Eagles believe they have what it takes to usher in a new era of Jacobs football, one in which they are counted among the FVC elite. To attain such status, Jacobs has to start beating the big three. They get their first shot Friday night in a huge homecoming date against visiting Cary-Grove, whose streak of five straight Valley Division titles was snapped last year by CL South.
"We're extremely happy with how we've started out," Mitz said of beating Joliet West, Johnsburg, Grayslake North and McHenry by a combined score of 153-46. "Now we find out if we can take that next step. It's right in front of us."
Jacobs (4-0, 1-0) must limit the damage done by the triple-option offense of Cary-Grove (3-1, 0-1). That's something the Golden Eagles couldn't do against the Trojans last year, when they broke down mentally in two regards.
"Last year was a combination of things," said Mitz, a 20-year resident of Cary whose son, Brian, led Cary-Grove to the Class 7A title game in 2004. "For one thing, I don't think our players believed that they could play with them.
"And No. 2, we had a lot of missed assignments. It ended up being 49-21. They embarrassed us. I think they may have played their best game of the year against us for whatever reason."
The Jacobs players have had 18 months to get to know Mitz and staff and digest their systems. They have won 10 of the 14 games Mitz has coached. As a result, they enter this matchup with Cary-Grove far more confidently than they did a year ago.
"We're not going to go in intimidated," said senior running back Caz Zyks. "We're really focused. I guess that's what has changed for us as seniors. Winning this game would be very important. It's the next big step. It would show how far we've come."
Zyks is a good example of the program's recent progress. Mitz, as he did when he coached at Stevenson, encouraged football players like Zyks, fullback Kyle Wright and quarterback Jason Judson to run track last spring to improve their speed.
The difference is obvious to Zyks, now a more fleet-footed ball carrier. He rushed for 1,087 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, the second-highest single-season rushing total in school history, according to the Jacobs football website.
Zyks is on pace to surpass last year's totals and challenge the single-season school record of 1,186 yards, set by Darius Bowers in 2007. Through four games Zyks has rushed for 623 yards and 7 touchdowns on 54 carries for a healthy average of 11.6 yards per attempt.
"Running track made a big difference with the breakaway speed," said Zyks, who has scored on touchdown runs of 65, 57, 38 and 31 yards. "Last year I used to get caught toward the end and had to dive. Now I'm hitting the hole and getting (to the end zone) before everybody else. Nobody touches me."
Zyks is one of five weapons third-year quarterback Judson has at his disposal. He can also hand off to Wright (43 carries, 333 yards, 5 touchdowns) or throw to junior receiver Jake Gierlak (13 rec., 262 yards, 1 touchdown), senior receiver Antonio Dunner (9-151-2) or senior tight end Henry Gigeous (6-76-2).
The Jacobs defense is led by senior linebackers Evan Bishop (6-4, 220) and Tyler Heiss (6-1, 195) and senior safety Cam Bokowy, but the unit skews younger than the senior-laden offense. Seven juniors, sometimes eight, play on the defensive side of the ball, including linebacker Joe Gonzalez and two-way lineman Adam Kulon.
The Jacobs defense has been drilling on stopping the triple option, also used by Prairie Ridge, since its summer camp. Will the players stay disciplined enough with their assignments to stifle the Cary-Grove attack this time around?
"We just have to believe in ourselves and believe in our teammates that we can do it," Bokowy said. "There's a lot riding on us, but I think we can do it if we stick to our responsibilities on defense and play our game. I think we can hang right with them. We've got athletes."
A win would qualify Jacobs for the playoffs. It would also stamp the Golden Eagles as legitimate contenders for the FVC title.
Friday, in front of a huge homecoming crowd, we'll find out if Jacobs football is indeed ready to take the next step.
"I think we're up to the challenge," Mitz said. "There's a lot of excitement in our school and our community.
"Let the best team win."