SYCAMORE – Mention the words “31 seconds” to any Sycamore football player and the flashbacks will start in their mind.
Sycamore’s 24-22 loss to eventual Class 5A state champion Montini in the second round of last year’s playoffs was almost 10 months ago, yet the memories still are fresh.
“Honestly, today it still feels like it was yesterday,” senior defensive end Josh Hunt said. “It’s in the back of your head all the time when you’re out here practicing or in the weight room.”
Losing to Montini in the playoffs wasn’t anything new for Sycamore, which hasn’t been able to escape the Broncos in four of the past six postseasons, but the fashion in which the 2012 defeat occurred might have been the most gut-wrenching of the four losses.
A textbook two-minute drill orchestrated by quarterback Devin Mottet, capped by a touchdown and two-point conversion, gave the Spartans a one-point lead with 31 seconds left. But a good kick return from Montini and three quick, productive plays set up a 34-yard field goal attempt that was true.
“I didn’t even watch the last play, just turned my head and hoped,” senior safety Michael Stinnett said. “I heard the crowd and then just a terrible feeling. We were so close and got a little taste of it and it was taken right from us.”
Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said the locker room atmosphere immediately after the loss that Saturday afternoon was centered on the senior class, those who had just played their final game in a Spartans uniform. But a couple days later, the focus shifted to this season.
There’s no cliché story about Sycamore players going back to the weight room earlier than usual, suddenly motivated after experiencing gridiron heartbreak. No matter how or when the season ended, they all would’ve gotten back to work the next week as part of the school’s overall sports training program that runs year-round from sport to sport. Many contributors, including Mottet, Ben Niemann, Jake Winters and Nick Feuerbach, had no choice, quickly transitioning into basketball mode.
“We would’ve much rather been playing the next week than in the weight room preparing for the offseason,” Stinnett said.
Luckily for Stinnett and the Spartans, many of last year’s starters do get another chance to take the field. The Spartans sport four three-year starters and the senior class is featured throughout the offensive and defensive depth charts.
Combine last year’s close call against Montini with a strong returning core of players, and external expectations for Sycamore are higher than they’ve been in years. The Spartans are ranked No. 5 in The Associated Press’ Class 5A preseason poll, one spot behind three-time defending Northern Illinois Big 12 East champion Kaneland.
Montini, of course, is the unanimous No. 1.
Yet Ryan, entering his 10th season at Sycamore, knows not to think too far ahead.
“It’s all about Week 1 right now,” Ryan said. “It’s not about the postseason because the postseason won’t ever come if you don’t play well each week.”
Just about 10 months ago, many players on the current group of Spartans stumbled slowly off the turf field in Lombard while Montini celebrated another win.
Today, they still remind each other of what happened, the 31 seconds that stood between them and finally doing away with the Montini curse. The 31 seconds will come up outside at practice or in the film room while they study kickoff team.
They remember those closing moments of the second-round playoff game for what they were: the closest any team has come to beating Montini in the playoffs over the past three postseasons.
But they’ve set out to prove that a year from now, that game will not be the legacy of the senior class.
“It’s obviously a positive because we were there, but as coach Ryan says, ‘All you get is a pat on the back for that,’ “ Hunt said. “You didn’t win, you didn’t go any further, you almost beat the team that won state.
“The positive is you get to build on that, knowing that we were there. That motivates everybody. ... It’s a good time to be at Sycamore right now. We’re on the rise.”