Conant hopes summer team-building will pay dividends now
A three-game losing streak has nothing on the middle of the woods.
That's how Conant is approaching its first-round Class 8A playoff game on Saturday at No. 11 Neuqua Valley (8-1).
The 6-3 Cougars, seeded No. 22, could be concerned about losing their final three games of the regular season, but they believe that they've faced much tougher situations. Like when they went on a team trip last summer to a camp in the woods near Peoria in which they were tested physically and mentally in a roughing-it setting with bootcamp, military-style activities.
"We have a group of fighters, kids who have had their will and toughness tested over and over," said Conant coach Bryan Stortz, whose team cruised to a 6-0 start but then finished with losses to Schaumburg, Fremd and Palatine. "Over the summer, we did challenges where we put the kids in scenarios in which we knew they would fail. We wanted to see how they would react, how they would handle themselves.
"Now, when we're in a tough situation, we can say to them, 'you've already been in this situation.' Our kids fight and scrap. And a lot of it (in the playoffs) comes down to being a really tough team."
The Cougars toughed out their trip to a 200-plus-acre retreat called Great Oaks in downstate Lacon as part of their preseason summer camp. They stayed in a cabin that sleeps 60 and includes a kitchen and chapel.
Prior to the team's arrival, Stortz and his staff mowed about a 40-yard rectangular patch of grass into a make-shift football field so that there would be a place to do football drills. But days in the woods also included team-building obstacle courses and challenging hikes and runs.
For fun, there was fishing and swimming in a nearby pond and zip-lining, paint-ball games and bonfires.
"One of our lineman, Kobe Gilbert, was really excited that he caught his very first fish," Stortz said with a chuckle. "There were lots of great stories like that, things that the kids will have fun looking back on."
The Cougars will probably remember that, for being out in the middle of the woods, they ate pretty well, too.
Stortz's dad Barry, who used to own a bar and grill, came out to the woods one day and cooked a feast for the Cougars that included ribs and pork chops, spaghetti, fried chicken and corn on the cob.
"When I told the kids about this camp, I told them they would be roughing it and they voted for it. They wanted to do it," Stortz said. "A lot of teams do these kinds of camps, but I think it's kind of unique the way we do them and the challenges we put the kids in. I think our kids had a really good time with it. I think they had a good time being together, too. These kids hang out together a lot. They like being around each other. They're a tight group and I think that will show on Saturday."
Seamless transition: It's always jarring when your starting quarterback goes down.
So there was definitely concern when Conant quarterback Guiseppe Dugo went down in the second half of last week's 20-13 loss to Palatine. Turns out Dugo broke his collarbone and could not return.
But the Cougars did not panic. They believe that they are in very capable hands moving forward. Backup Matt Botello, who also starts at safety, finished the Palatine game for Conant at quarterback and seemed to fit in quite nicely.
"It was as if we didn't even miss a step," Conant coach Bryan Stortz said. "Matt did a really nice job against Palatine, and I think that's a credit to all the work he did in the summer.
"It was a real battle between him and (Dugo) over the summer for that starting quarterback spot. Matt is very similar (to Dugo). Matt is a good runner as well. And he can be explosive, too. So he fits in with what we want to do. And since he's a starter on defense, he's been on the field this year in big situations. He won't be spooked. We have no hesitation to play Matt. I think he's going to do a great job for us."
It's possible Botello could still be counted on for big plays on both sides of the field. Stortz says that while quarterback will now be Botello's priority, he will still play some at safety.
"He won't play both ways the entire game, but he will play spots on defense," Stortz said of Botello. "Matt has also been a very good defensive player for us this year."