Cary-Grove will face a team that arguably made the greatest turnaround in the state this season when the top-seeded Trojans (9-0) host No. 16 Rockford Auburn (5-4) in a Class 6A playoff opener on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Auburn entered the season on a 35-game losing streak, but things changed immediately under new coach Dan Appino, who migrated from Rockford Boylan last winter after leading the Titans to consecutive state championships in 2010 and 2011.
The Knights put their losing streak to bed by winning the season opener against Belvidere North, 16-14. They went on to defeat Jefferson, Guilford, Freeport and Rockford East to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time in school history and the first time since 1990.
Auburn's reward for such a feel-good run? The Knights draw a program that wins first-round playoff games for a living. Cary-Grove has won its playoff opener every season since 2004. It's a streak that does not garner much attention from the Trojans themselves, however.
"We haven't really talked about it," second-year Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "That's a result of the success of the program as far as winning the first game of the playoffs, but everyone's goal is to win the state championship. You can't win it unless you win that first game.
"Our guys are grounded. They know what's at stake. We've had some great teams here and only one took home the trophy. They know to take nothing for granted, play every down and be on your game."
Led by fullback Kyle Norberg (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) and safety/split end Zach Marszal (6-0, 182), Cary-Grove marched to the outright title of the Fox Valley Conference's Valley Division -- its first since the 2009 Class 6A state championship season -- and completed its sixth undefeated regular season in nine years.
The Trojans have battled through key injuries all season but are nearly back at full strength for the playoffs. Sophomore offensive lineman Michael Gomez (5-11, 273) played three series last week after missing 4 games. He'll start this week, Seaburg said.
Also back at full strength is speed merchant Ryan Mahoney, Cary-Grove's big play threat. He played last week against Prairie Ridge and showed no lingering effects from the high ankle sprain that caused him to miss several midseason games. Mahoney caught a 63-yard touchdown pass, ran for a 63-yard score and finished with 169 of his team's 324 total yards.
Senior quarterback Quinn Baker had the cast removed from a broken finger on his non-throwing hand on Wednesday. He split reps at practice Wednesday and Thursday with sophomore Jason Gregoire, who filled in competently the last two weeks while Baker healed.
Auburn will be hard pressed to stop Norberg, who is remarkably quick through the line of scrimmage and is tough to reel in once he is loose. The senior has rushed for 1,282 yards and 16 touchdowns on 124 carries.
The Knights' top offensive weapon is Devone Manns. He has gained 686 yards on 111 carries, while Quon Herron has rushed for 373 yards on 78 carries, according to the Rockford Register Star.
Though the opponent is unfamiliar, the Auburn schemes will not be. Appino employs many of the same formations he used at Boylan two years ago when his team defeated the Trojans in a Class 6A quarterfinal, 20-14 in overtime, thus ending the career of Cary-Grove hall-of-fame coach Bruce Kay.
The Trojans will be concerned with Auburn's overall team speed no matter the formation.
"They have some playmakers on offense, and they have the ability to throw the ball up and go get it," Seaburg said. "Anytime you play a team that has playmakers that can break off a long run or complete a long pass for a score, you're never safe in a game even if you are controlling the clock."