If a year ago someone had predicted one of the most important matchups of the 2012 Fox Valley Conference Valley Division season would take place in Week 5 between Dundee-Crown and Huntley, such a person would have been advised not to operate heavy machinery.
At this time last year, Dundee-Crown was struggling its way through a second straight 0-9 season with a sophomore-dominated lineup. The Chargers would finish last in the seven-team FVC Valley.
Meanwhile, Huntley was ambling through a disappointing 2-7 campaign that would lead to a coaching change. The Red Raiders finished sixth in the division by virtue of a lone FVC Valley victory against winless D-C.
Fast forward to this Friday, when two rising programs brimming with newfound confidence tussle on Huntley's homecoming in a game with serious division-race implications.
After a productive off-season in the weight room and time to better understand second-year coach Vito Andriola's system, the revitalized Chargers not only snapped their school's 26-game losing streak in Week 1, they've won 3 of 4 games and stand 1-1 in the Valley after knocking off defending Class 6A champion Prairie Ridge last week, 35-21.
As one D-C fan aptly posted on Facebook after the Prairie Ridge game, "Dundee-Crown deserves some kind of Disney movie."
Huntley, now under the direction of two-time Indiana state champion coach John Hart, has come on strong since opening the season with losses to Crystal Lake Central and powerful Kaneland. The Red Raiders broke through two weeks ago with an eye-opening 30-7 win at then-undefeated Prairie Ridge. They followed up last Friday with a thrilling 20-19 victory over Crystal Lake South.
The win was Huntley's first over the Gators, the defending FVC Valley co-champs, and vaulted the Red Raiders to 2-0 in league play. That's good for first place in the Valley, a half-game ahead of Cary-Grove and Jacobs and a game ahead of Dundee-Crown and McHenry.
While D-C and Huntley have distinctly different styles and possess diverse individual talents, the improving teams share one key attribute not seen in either program for some time: belief.
Belief is not easily cultivated. Though it is a key to success in every sport, it has a more pronounced effect in football. Every player on the gridiron must hold to the fundamental belief they can succeed together on every play. Or else.
"You've got to get 11 guys doing the same thing at the same time, which is hard," Andriola said. "Usually, you can't even get kids this age to clean their rooms. That's why I love coaching high school football. Football is hard. If it was easy, there would be 1,000 people doing it. That's why some people would rather be superfans. Because being a superstar is a lot harder."
Andriola said his players started believing in themselves with the season-opening win against Elgin. He said there were moments in D-C's Week 2 victory at Streamwood when things could have gone either way, but his team handled its first taste of adversity well. The junior-laden Chargers bounced back from 2 first-half turnovers and won going away, further boosting their confidence.
Dundee-Crown faced harsher adversity in Week 3 when the team was unable to protect a 10-point lead in the third quarter of an eventual defeat at McHenry. However, they apparently learned their lesson in a week. Leading Prairie Ridge by 14 points in the third quarter, D-C finished the job by keeping the Wolves from reaching the end zone for the final 18 minutes.
While Hart is quick to point out his team is far from the finish line -- "We're 2-2," he said. "It's not like we've won a state championship or something" -- there is no question Huntley possesses a different mental attitude than in recent years. It's an outlook based in looking out for one another.
"It's an ongoing process," Hart said of changing the program mentality, "but the easiest concept I sold to the guys is to never let down your teammate. And they believe in that. I think it's probably been the banner of all my teams, that we fight for each other. Then you don't worry about other things like how big your crowd is, or whether you have a nice scoreboard, or where you're going to practice or anything else.
"It's all about your teammates, and they've done a wonderful job with that part of it. They are terrific kids. They play as hard for each other as any group of kids could."
The new Huntley coach's approach has rubbed off on the approximately 200 players in the Huntley football program. Their we-can-do-anything-together attitude is beginning to translate to victories.
"Once we got them pointed in the right direction, I said your job is to play as hard as you can," Hart said. "You don't have to make every play and you don't have to worry about everything. They just started playing harder. I give credit for that to my coaches and the kids. I don't think it's anything I taught them. They believe in what we're doing and they believe in each other."
Andriola, Hart and their respective staffs have done precisely what they were hired to do -- they've taken two down programs and made the players believe they can win again. That is an intangible victory in itself.
One team will come away from this game with another W and yet another confidence boost. The other, no doubt, will remain fervent that its goal can eventually be reached.
"It's two teams starting to believe," Andriola said. "Friday night will go a long way to verifying that belief. It's going to be interesting."