Just three years ago, the two Grayslake high schools - Central and North - combined for just one football win. That's right. One.
Grayslake Central was 1-8 and Grayslake North was a winless 0-9.
And it wasn't like the 2008 season was fluky either. High school football in Grayslake doesn't exactly include a rich history or tradition. With few exceptions, futility has been a theme.
The town of Grayslake is finally finding its football mojo, and as Central and North prepare to clash in their annual crosstown rivalry game tonight, both programs are standing tall.
Grayslake Central, which owns a 4-1 advantage in the rivalry game, is a robust 6-1 and just lost its first game of the season last week after reeling off six straight wins. The Rams have ridden one of the stingiest defenses in Lake County (9.3 ppg) to the top spot in the Fox Valley Fox Division standings. They've also guaranteed themselves a spot in the playoffs for the second straight season.
Meanwhile, Grayslake North is on the verge of its first playoff berth in school history. The Knights, who lead the Fox Division in scoring (32.7 ppg), will guarantee themselves a spot in the postseason if they win out, and could even get there on points by getting just one win in their final two games.
"I think you're starting to see that with both teams and both schools things are falling into place. We've finally recovered from the split," Grayslake Central coach Nick Goshe said of the transition from one high school in the district to two in 2006. "It's not easy digging yourself out of the trenches after something like that.
"It takes time, it takes patience. But it's been about five years now and that's how long it often takes to build a program if you have some consistency."
Goshe meant consistency in the coaching staff. And Grayslake North coach Steve Wood cited that as vital to success as well.
Prior to the split, the coaching staff at Grayslake was often wildly inconsistent, changing frequently.
Between 2000 and 2007, Grayslake, which became Grayslake Central, had four head coaches, including Goshe, who took over in 2007.
"We were going through coaches every couple years it seemed like," said Wood, who started out as an assistant at Grayslake before the split. "Now, you have two coaching staffs that have been in place for years. I know our staff has pretty much remained exactly the same. I think we've lost like three coaches in the last six years. It's pretty similar over at Central.
"When you get that kind of consistency, you are able to really put your fingerprint on the program and you're able to build something. Our numbers are up, our youth programs are really good and we're getting support from the administration."
Both schools have recently had artificial turf installed on their football fields. And Central got a new weight room, commitments from the district that have facilitated success on the field.
"Everyone always thinks about the X's and O's," Wood said. "But it's all those little things that really make a big difference. We're at the point where both programs have everything we need to be successful.
"Now, we just need to take it to the next level."
Warm up, Grayslake: Although the battle on the field tonight between crosstown rivals Grayslake Central and Grayslake North might not be all warm and fuzzy, the coats collected during the game will be.
For the second year in a row, the schools are combining to run a coat drive for military veterans.
Receptacles will be stationed around Central's stadium and fans are encouraged to drop off donated coats of all styles and sizes.
"We're happy to do it, to give back to the community," Grayslake Central coach Nick Goshe said. "It was a good success last year at their place (at North). We got quite a few coats."
The drive accumulated around 300 coats, to be exact. And this year, officials are expecting far more.
"I've already got a bunch of garbage bags full of coats in our storage area," Grayslake North coach Steve Wood said. "It's just a nice way for the two schools to come together and help the community.
"We like to think that our game is so big, so important. And it is, to a certain extent, but in the big picture, it's not really that big. We've got people out here freezing and without coats. We're happy that we can help with that a little bit."
Wood's team has also helped children at a nearby elementary school.
Each year, the Knights hold a book drive and give the donated books to the kids at Avon School.
Lessons of a loss: No team likes to lose. Ever.
But a smart, savvy coach will spin a loss so well that it's silver lining becomes almost blinding.
After losing for the first time all season last week (to Woodstock North), Grayslake Central took away a valuable lesson: Don't drink the KoolAid.
"We were getting a little too fat, dumb and happy," Grayslake Central coach Nick Goshe said with a laugh. "We were drinking our own juice too much, we were too high on the horse, thinking about how good we were (at 6-0). We had a really bad week of practice (leading into the Woodstock North game), and I think we weren't focused. We lost our hunger a little bit."
The good new is the Rams got it back. After a focused and businesslike week of practice, they are recalibrated.
"They're dialed in again. They're looking to get respect back because they think they lost it," Goshe said of his players. "No coach or player wants to lose, but when you learn from it, when you are able to make adjustments, it's something that can actually help you a lot."
Lessons of a loss, part 2: Grayslake North learned some valuable lessons last week as well.
In a 35-24 loss to Crystal Lake Central, the Knights lost two fumbles that were game changers. One came as they tried to score from the 1-yard line early on, and the other came as they were trying to rally late.
"The biggest thing we learned from that loss is that not every play has to be a highlight play," said Grayslake North coach Steve Wood, whose team had gotten used to jamming the highlight reel as the highest scoring team in the Fox Valley Fox Division. "We've talked a lot about respecting the football and that you've got to take care of it on every single play because it can hurt you big if you don't.
"I think we're understanding that a lot better now, which is good. Because if you want to be a playoff team, you better do a good job of protecting the ball."