When you realize you've made it now, that is something to savor.
Aurora Christian football coach Don Beebe played in six Super Bowls, winning with the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. In 2008 he coached Aurora Christian to the Class 4A state title game, finishing as runner-up to Bloomington Central Catholic.
Yet for all Beebe's title-game experience, it is the stage just before the state semifinals in high school, the conference championship in his playing days which he called "the funnest game of the year."
"Winning the game right before the big game, and knowing you're going, it's such an exhilarating, know-you've-made-it type of feeling," Beebe said.
He said his favorite moment in eight years coaching the Eagles was standing on the sideline at Richmond-Burton in 2008 and knowing his team would be playing for a state championship.
This year's 11-1 squad has the opportunity to catch that feeling on its own field in Saturday's Class 3A semifinal against fellow No. 1 seed Tolono Unity, kickoff at 5 p.m.
Unity coach Scott Hamilton has likewise been to this stage, eight times in his 18 seasons including the last three years straight. The Rockets were 3A runner-up in 2000, 2005 and 2009. This vast playoff experience can only help.
"Number one, I think it prepares us to play in games like this," Hamilton said. "The group of seniors, this will be their 40th varsity game."
Unity (11-1) used to run a straight option offense but Hamilton has since moved to a shotgun-spread that retains option principles.
"We're definitely a different type of spread team than Aurora Christian is, more of a wing-spread, but we're still going to try to run the ball a little more effectively," he said.
To that extent he's got dual-threat quarterback Taylor Black, who Hamilton said has passed for about 1,300 yards and run for around 1,200. Black is a two-year starting quarterback who was a starting safety as a sophomore.
Going behind linemen such as 245-pounders Danny Shroyer and Dalton Flowers, running back Michael Lafenhagen has gained about 1,200 yards, Hamilton said. Receiver-back Micah Johnson has about 1,000 yards combined.
"Their mentality is to run but they can throw, that's what makes it difficult," Beebe said. "Like our offense, we have 2,300 or 2,400 yards rushing this year (actually 2,481) and everybody thinks we're pass-happy."
Beebe is certainly happy with the pass. Quarterback Anthony Maddie, who is up to 3,483 yards passing and 46 touchdowns, spreads the ball to five receivers with at least 20 receptions headed by Cory Windle with 52 catches, 1,194 yards, 17 touchdowns.
But if Unity linebackers Austin Fender and brothers Mitch and Kyle Negangard look like they're heading into coverage, Beebe would like nothing more than Maddie to audible out to a run. Maddie's experience reading defenses and ability to audible out of losing plays is one huge reason Beebe said the offense is "clicking at its best level."
"My mindset going into the game is to run the football, and I don't care if it's Brandon Mayes (590 yards, 5 touchdowns), Ryan Suttle (254 yards, 3 TDs) or Anthony Maddie (884 yards, 13 TDs)," Beebe said.
"I know from the experiences of the past that if you can run the football you can be effective in the passing game. But if you can't run the ball you could be in for a long night."
Hamilton, whose Rockets beat No. 6 Macomb 35-7 to reach this stage, said the key for his success is to corral Maddie on the run. The Western Michigan-bound senior's 74- and 63-yard touchdown runs on consecutive scrambles broke No. 3 Winnebago's back in Aurora Christian's 48-13 quarterfinal win.
"He turns broken plays into touchdowns and he turns a 5-yard loss into a 50-yard gain," Hamilton said. "I think a key for us to be successful is making sure a 5-yard loss stays a 5-yard loss."
If that comes to pass Aurora Christian could be denied that certain glory Beebe has felt only after winning a semifinal game.
"I'd just like these kids to be able to experience this too," Beebe said Friday, "and hopefully we'll be able to pull out a victory tomorrow night."