The same Cary-Grove football team poised to challenge undefeated Rockford Boylan in a second-round playoff game stood on the brink of demise in Week 3.
The Trojans were 0-2 following losses at state powers Wheaton North and Lake Zurich and were staring 0-3 squarely in the face, trailing late at undefeated Huntley, 13-9.
A sack and a penalty left the Cary-Grove offense facing third-and-24 from its own 40-yard line with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Then came the play that changed the course of a season.
Cary-Grove junior quarterback Jason Gregoire lofted a pass to junior receiver Larkin Hanselmann on a backside post pattern for a 60-yard touchdown. The defense subsequently stuffed Huntley's final drive at midfield to seal the win, allowing everyone clad in blue and white to exhale.
Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said this week he thinks the Trojans would have found a way to bounce back and make the playoffs had they slipped to 0-3 that day.
This team does exhibit many of the same winning traits as the program's last nine playoff teams, most notably, a defense that moves faster than publicly traded shares of Twitter. Its only other loss was by a point in the final seconds against eventual league champion Jacobs, so a 5-4 finish and a playoff berth still might have been possible.
Then again, perhaps not.
No other Cary-Grove team during this 10-year run of sustained success had to dig itself out from an 0-3 start. There's no way to say for sure how the players would have reacted to such adversity. Maybe doubt would have crept into the program for the first time in a decade and caused cracks. After all, losing that game was the start of a 3-game spiral that ultimately cost Huntley a playoff berth.
One thing is certain: winning in Week 3 in such dramatic fashion put No. 9 Cary-Grove (7-3) on its current path, one that intersects with top seed Boylan (10-0) in a Class 6A matchup at Al Bohrer Field Saturday at 1 p.m.
"There's no doubt the Huntley game really injected some fire in our kids," Seaburg said. "It was such a big game for us. That was about the time our offense really started to develop into what we are now."
Seaburg compares this team to the 2004 squad that launched the Golden Age of Cary-Grove football, saying this is the first team since '04 that has improved every week. Granted, several C-G teams in the interim didn't need to improve much on a weekly basis. Some, like the 2009 state champion and last year's state-runner up, were loaded with talent from the start, picked from Day 1 to win the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference and much more.
That wasn't the case with this team. The 2013 Trojans entered the season with 17 new starters and more questions than the ACT. But a few important factors coalesced along the way:
•Some seniors with little game experience stepped up to fill some key roles. Though they didn't see much playing time a year ago, players like offensive linemen Johnny Klodnicki and Brandon Caccavallo, defensive end TJ Sorensen and nose guard Joey Maxwell have made significant contributions as starters. Those players joined the few returning seniors who started in the 2012 state title game, like defensive end Emerson Kersten and linebacker Matt Hughes.
•A junior class that went 9-0 on the sophomore level replenished the graduation-depleted varsity roster with new talent. Players like Hanselmann and receiver/defensive back George Hartke and kick returner Willie Hartke joined already established varsity classmates like Gregoire, defensive back Matt Sutherland, defensive end/tight end Michael Gomez and offensive tackle Trevor Ruhland.
•The offense added important pieces at midseason, namely freshman fullback Tyler Pennington and junior running back Zach McQuade.
Seaburg and staff plugged Pennington in at fullback in Week 4 against Dundee-Crown after he played the first 3 games on the defensive line and at safety. The prodigy has since rushed for over 100 yards in 6 of the 7 games he has started. Pennington enters the Boylan game with 910 yards and 8 touchdowns on 155 carries (5.9 avg.).
Another piece of the puzzle was added in Week 6, when McQuade joined the lineup for the first time since he sustained a broken collarbone in preseason practice. McQuade is a playmaker, averaging 9 yards per carry in 27 attempts. He has also become one of Gregoire's leading targets with 8 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown in 4 games, balancing Hanselmann's 12 receptions for 258 yards.
The result? The Cary-Grove offense is once again operating with the seamless efficiency of a Portillo's drive-through during the dinner rush. The Trojans have thrown for 713 yards and rushed for 2,365, led by Gregoire, who played a few games late last season when starting quarterback Quinn Baker was injured. The 6-foot-4 signal caller has piled up 472 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 112 carries and has thrown for 698 yards and 5 touchdowns on 47-of-91 passing. Gregoire has been intercepted just once.
The Trojans will face a stiff test in Boylan, which was ranked No. 1 in Class 6A through Week 9 by The Associated Press. The Titans are led by quarterback Demry Croft, who according to the Rockford Register-Star has rushed for 520 yards on 64 carries and completed 106 of 167 pass attempts for 1,445 yards and 14 touchdowns. Like Gregoire, he has thrown just one interception.
Croft took over at quarterback midway through Boylan's Week 2 game against Hononegah, replacing Brock Stull, who switched to receiver. Stull leads the Titans with 39 receptions for 495 yards. Boylan's leading rusher is Nick Pumilia (659 yards).
Cary-Grove won all 4 home games this season and enters with a 16-game home winning streak that began in 2011. Included in that streak are 4 playoff victories. Cary-Grove's last home playoff loss? A 20-14 overtime loss to Boylan on Nov. 13, 2010.
Whether or not this reconfigured Cary-Grove unit has what it takes to upset the top seed remains to be seen, but it's hard to count out a team that stood on the brink of demise and fought its way back.