Conant's resurgence comes as no surprise for a Stortz-coached team
It only takes about 30 seconds at a Conant football practice to realize the energy second-year Cougars coach Bryan Stortz radiates to his team.
"It's a great day for football," Stortz yells at the top of his lungs on a sunny Tuesday as the Cougars get stretched out.
There have been more great days than not for football around Conant this season and on Friday night, when rival Hoffman Estates visits Charles Feutz Stadium, the Cougars hope to put the final touches on an undefeated Mid-Suburban West season, and gain their seventh win of the season which could get them a home playoff game next week.
Wait a minute. Conant? Playoffs? Home game?
Yep, you did not read that upside down and that's because after going 1-17 the past two seasons, the Cougars are back. They're 6-2 heading into Friday's game against Hoffman, which is also 6-2, but Conant secured the MSL West title last week with a 41-7 win over Palatine that put the Cougars at 4-0 in the division.
So how does one transform from 0-9 and 1-8 seasons to a conference title and, with a win Friday, a good chance at a home game in the first round of the playoffs?
"It goes back to last season," Stortz said. "The kids who played for us know that we left some plays out there in some tight games and our kids have worked really hard on the things we emphasized in the offseason. They've really come together and understood what type of things they need to do to be successful in those games and they've made the plays when they've counted. They're believing in each other and getting the job done."
More than anything the Cougars are getting it done with defense, which in turn gives Stortz's ball-control offense a chance to control the clock.
In its six wins, Conant has allowed a mere 60 points, the most in one game being 14 to Fremd, a game the Cougars won 17-14 in the final seconds.
OK, so they allowed 62 points in their two nonconference losses -- 42 to Maine South and 20 to Evanston -- but they've had the stingiest defense in the MSL West by far. In turn, they've secured the program's first West title since 2003 and the first outright since 2002. If they beat Hoffman it will be the first time a Conant team has won seven games in a season since 2012.
"The kids are really doing a nice job on the defensive side of the ball," Stortz said. "Our offense is trying to have time-consuming drives as well so I think there's a little bit to the formula of playing good defense, good special teams and managing the clock. Our kids have done a great job defensively in some tight spots."
Last week against Palatine it was the interception that got the ball back to the offense -- three of them coming from senior linebacker Anthony Wachal, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
"We have such heart," Wachal said. "It's 11 to the ball. All these guys have heart and our defense plays as one unit. We game plan all week but what it comes down to is what we can do. The defense gets stops and gets the ball to our offense and that lets our offense work. The defense makes plays and it's just 11 to the ball all the time."
Which makes things easier for the offense to game plan as well.
"The defense has been remarkable for us all year," said senior quarterback Kevin Polaski, who is 39 of 60 for 600 yards, 7 TDs and no interceptions this season.
"On offense we want to control the clock, execute our plays then get downfield and score."
After wins over Addison Trail and Elk Grove to start the season, the bump in the road came with the losses to Evanston and Maine South. But the four-game winning streak has made those setbacks a distant memory for Cougars fans.
"We learned a lot from those two games," Stortz said. "We went back to work and tried to get better at those things and build off the things we did well. The kids have taken a lot of those things to heart and they've come out and played as hard as they can play."
Also not lost in Conant's resurgence is the Stortz influence. Plain and simple, the guy is a winner. A 1996 graduate of downstate Dunlap High School, Stortz took over the Lake Zurich program in 2006 and went 62-16 in six years there (19-5 in playoff games), winning a state championship in 2007 and finishing second in 2006 and 2010. He then headed west to Rock Island where he was 34-18 in five years and took the Rocks to four playoffs, including the state quarterfinals in 2016.
"It's absolutely a blessing playing for him," Polaski said. "He does everything for us. When he came in we weren't sure what was going to happen but once we got to see what he was doing ... he put everything together and put us in a good spot."
"I've never met a more competitive guy in my life," Wachal said of his head coach. "Everyone rallies around him. We know he wants to win more than anything and we trust him fully with whatever he tells us to do."
Stortz's message to the Cougars this week?
"You can't look too far down the road," he said. "They've gotten more excited with each win and what we've seen is a change in the excitement -- it's grown more into a confidence. Our kids are playing hard and they're having fun playing football. If you do that and try to simplify things, that's how you can be successful."
As the Cougars clearly have been this season.