Note to readers: This is the fourth in a seven-part series that takes a look back at some of the greatest sports teams from our local high schools. One team from DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston, Hinckley-Big Rock, Kaneland Hiawatha and Indian Creek will be featured in the series.
It’s hard to locate a program’s greatest stretch of dominance when dominance is all the program knows.
That’s just how it is for Hinckley-Big Rock boys soccer; the players don’t seem to know how to lose. Since the program was started by Gene Cusic and Roy Dittman in 1970, the Royals have had just one losing season.
Much of the credit must go to Larry Peppers. He coached H-BR from 1976 to 2006, and when he retired, he was the winningest coach in Illinois history with 571 victories.
AN UNUSUAL START
Peppers was not your typical soccer coach. When he became an assistant in 1974, he had no prior experience with soccer, playing or coaching.
“I never thought I’d be a soccer coach,” Peppers said. “They needed an assistant when I first got there, and I just said I’d do it because they were looking for somebody.”
Peppers may have been new to the sport, but he had the passion and leadership that led to immediate success when he took over as the head man two years later. It didn’t take him long to get the hang of it, because in his fourth year as head coach, his team began the best three-year stretch in program history.
From 1979 to ’81, his teams qualified for three out of Peppers’ four state finals. While the teams may have been helped by the fact that there were less than 100 boys soccer teams throughout the state, this also meant there was only one class and the Royals were routinely matched up against much schools with larger enrollments.
“He was a tough coach,” said John Schleifer, a center forward under Peppers. “He knew how to get the best out of his players.”
At the time, the IHSA hadn’t set regulations on the number of games that teams could play, so the Royals would travel downstate to play in tournaments at Peoria and Granite City. There, they would face some of the state’s toughest competition, namely Granite City South, which won six consecutive titles from 1976 to 82.
For the school without a football team, soccer was everything. The fans flocked to the matches with regularity, and the players had been on the field together since elementary school, so the chemistry was unrivaled. David Maxam, whose son, Robert, played on H-BR’s state teams in 1980 and ’81, coached nearly all the players on club teams from the time they were eight years old until they graduated from H-BR.
“We used to play in the Northern Illinois Soccer League in the summer, and then in the winter, we’d play indoors,” Maxam said. “So they were essentially playing just about all year long.”
And once they were in high school, they were a well-oiled machine. In 1979, the Royals were coming off a 25-1-1 season, but they were knocked out early in the playoffs. This time around, H-BR rolled to the Little Ten Conference championship, then kept the momentum going to a regional title and a berth in the state finals.
“I think the whole team and the coaches felt like we couldn’t be beat,” Schleifer said. “We had every intention of winning the whole thing when we went to states. We felt like we were unstoppable.”
That momentum carried into the quarterfinals, where they crushed Niles North, 7-1. Schleifer scored twenty seconds into the match and, by the end, a state record had been set for combined goals in the state finals. The team ultimately lost their next match to the eventual champions, Granite City South, and finished with a 27-5-1 record.
The next year’s team was led by a dynamic senior duo, midfielder Peter Rask-Nielsen, a Danish foreign exchange student, and forward Kevin Schmidt. Rask-Nielsen scored 36 goals and had 36 assists on the season, while Schmidt tallied 62 goals.
“They were dynamite,” Maxam said. “We were a small school, but because of them, we got to be one of those teams that everybody wanted to play.”
The Royals once again made the state finals, but their run was halted by Hinsdale South. The 2-0 loss ended their year at 26-4-1, but it was still a historic season. Schmidt not only was H-BR’s first All-State player, but he also set a then-state record with 121 career goals, accomplishing the feat in just three varsity seasons.
SETTING A STANDARD
Even after graduating their best two players, the program didn’t suffer. The Royals once again made it to the final eight, and their fans were with them at every step.
“The support was fantastic,” Peppers said. “There would be a caravan following us on those trips. We’d stay at a Holiday Inn, and there would be the parents and fans.”
The three-year run ended with a 3-0 defeat to Collinsville, which went on to lose to Granite City South in the finals. Although the Royals’ next state finals appearance wouldn’t come for another 22 years, the tradition of success was there to stay.
What showed in the team’s records started with the team’s mentality. It was a mindset of persistence and toughness that was seen in the players, but started with Peppers.
“The players always understood that the program was a tough one and that you had to work hard,” Peppers said. “If you were going to be on a Hinckley-Big Rock team, you were going to earn it.”