Things were a bit different than they are today when I was a student at Harry D. Jacobs High School in Algonquin in the late 1980s (if you are ever curious who Harry D. Jacobs was, check out the dedication plaque in the school sometime).
For starters, Randall Road was two lanes from the outskirts of Crystal Lake all the way down to Geneva. One of my first driver's education assignments was to chauffeur the teacher to the Geneva courthouse to drop something off.
From the school bus, I also watched Golf Club of Illinois rise from the weeds into the town's very own course.
In terms of athletics at Jacobs during my time there, teams didn't have too much success. Instead of watching our own basketball team, I opted to go with my uncle over to Crystal Lake Central (he was a Crystal Lake Community grad) and watch Bill Heppner, who later went to DePaul, break backboards (I saw him do it twice in games at Hampshire and McHenry).
Football was an entirely different animal on the struggling scale. The year before I got there, the team went 4-5 under area coaching great Ron Ellett (he of Hampshire state-championship fame). My four years consisted of a pair of 0-9s, a 1-8 and a 2-7. I did enjoy sitting on the grass berm and watching my cousin play on a few of those teams.
My senior year is when the late Dick Hartley took over the program. Hartley, a physical-education teacher who also did a stint as athletic director, was best-known for his impassioned antics at pep rallies where he would turn bright red while yelling into the microphone for us to give him a "J" an "A" a "C" and so on.
But while Hartley was masterful at working the student body into a frenzy, success in football simply wasn't something that occurred at the school from its inception in 1975 all the way to 1997. During that time frame, Jacobs had but five winning seasons, made one playoff appearance and had 13 seasons of 2 or fewer wins. As former pro wrestler turned yoga instructor Diamond Dallas Page used to say in his wrestling promos, "Good God."
The program's initial gridiron renaissance took place in the late 90s under former Rockford East coach Dean Schlueter, who led the team to memorable back-to-back playoff appearances in 1998 and 1999 -- the latter saw the Golden Eagles reach the second round of the postseason. In his 13 seasons at Jacobs, Schlueter led teams to four playoff appearances (two second-round appearances), 55 wins and five seasons with a winning record. I recall covering a particularly spirited Jacobs-Prairie Ridge game early in Schlueter's tenure that finally cemented the program's arrival.
If Schlueter got the program off life support and functioning rather well, current Golden Eagles coach Bill Mitz has it humming like a luxury sports car down the Interstate.
Mitz, the former longtime coach and teacher at Stevenson High School, took over the program in 2010 and has promptly led it to 6 playoff appearances in the last 7 years (the only non-playoff year Jacobs was playoff-eligible but was left out on playoff-point tiebreakers), including this year's school-record run that has the 28th-seeded Golden Eagles in the Class 7A state quarterfinals this weekend at home against No. 4 playoff seed Oak Park Fenwick (3 p.m. kickoff Saturday at the Jacobs Athletic Stadium).
"Since we've been here we've made the playoffs every year but one. We've built a tradition, slowly but surely," said Mitz, who sports a 241-124 record between Stevenson and Jacobs (28 playoff appearances in 35 years). "This year, things have taken off at the right time of year."
Some may have scoffed at Jacobs' nondescript 5-4 record heading into this year's postseason. But that record doesn't come close to telling the whole story. Jacobs, which has been slowed at times by injuries, played in a brutal Fox Valley Conference that features four teams playing in their classes' respective state quarterfinals this weekend (Huntley, Cary-Grove and league-champion Prairie Ridge are the other three). Three of its four losses came to those teams and the other to playoff-qualifier McHenry.
"I don't think I've ever been involved in something where there were four teams from a league in the quarterfinals," said Mitz, a Fox River Grove resident whose son, Brian, was a standout quarterback for some elite Bruce Kay-coached Cary-Grove teams. "Our kids never got down. When things didn't go right in those games, they kept plugging away."
And Jacobs has been rewarded for its efforts in the postseason, defeating Lane Tech (No. 5 seed in 7A) and Batavia (No. 12 seed) teams that had 8-1 and 8-2 records going into those Week 10 and 11 games.
"We believe that we are going to win," Jacobs junior left guard Jimmy Wormsley said. "If you don't believe you are going to win, that's what will happen. You have to go into games believing you are the best team in the state and that you are going to give it everything you have and come out of the game with a victory."
Wormsley has been a starter on the offensive line since his freshman year (Mitz's only freshman starter in his long head-coaching career).
"I remember that first game I played against Barrington on a Friday night," he said. "Before, the biggest crowd I had played for was on a Sunday in front of a few parents. It's been a journey. My freshman year we went 5-4 and didn't make the playoffs and then last year we go 7-2 and lost in the first round."
Wormsley said the team's success this season has simple roots. "We're a brotherhood," he said. "Last year was extremely tough because we lost in the first round. We all got together and lifted and worked hard in summer camp and we've stuck with it. We're very close with each other. We've gone out and fought are hardest each week and that's got us pretty far right now."
Mitz cites a host of contributors to the team's success -- echoing Wormsley's team-first attitude. Jacobs has been bolstered by an offensive line that includes Wormsley (6-3, 280), Cade Purifoye (6-4, 290), Dylan Demuth (6-2, 205), Kyle Viega (6-1, 265) and Cade Portell (6-2, 235) who have opened up holes for running backs Loren Strickland, David Butros and Stephen Cavanaugh. Strickland has rushed for more than 800 yards this season. Out of all those names, only Viega is a senior.
Junior Defensive end Eric Schutt (17 quarterback sacks -- not a typo) and senior safety Conrad Beech (back after missing a decent chunk of the season due to injury) help fuel the defense, which has surrendered only 22 points in the first two playoff wins.
"We are running well to the ball and we're playing good defense," said Mitz. "Offensively our front five are gelling and blocking well. Our running backs are playing well, our quarterback is throwing well and our kicking game has done well. We feel like we are hitting on all cylinders."
Mitz also lauded the efforts of the Jacobs coaching staff, which includes Stevenson transfers Andy Farrissey, Bob Mackey (former head baseball coach at Stevenson), Mike Warren (a starter on 1996 Northwestern Rose Bowl team) and Ryan Arndt. The varsity staff is rounded out by Brian Zimmerman and Jim Foote.
"I'm fortunate that we have great kids and great coaches here," Mitz said. "The administration here has been great. They allowed me to bring over the staff I wanted and they invested money in the weight room when I got here."
Beech says the vibe around the school is off the charts with the Golden Eagles venturing into territory Saturday that no other team in program history has experienced.
"It's incredible that we've helped kick-start the football program here and make it as successful as it is now and hopefully into the future," he says. "This is fantastic. We're giving the school and the community what they deserve out of our football team."
Wormsley remembers his dad, Jim, who played at Dundee-Crown and now coaches at Wheeling (teaches at Hersey) telling him about early-program Jacobs teams that he played against.
"I asked him about Jacobs back in the day and said they were kind of the laughingstock of the conference," he said. "We've turned it around."
Mitz says his team is ready and willing to make even more history Saturday against Fenwick.
"They are hungry and not satisfied yet," he said. "They have the will to win and they've shown that. We want to keep going them. We told them, 'Your dreams are out in front of you.' "