Genoa-Kingston was crushed. Hopes of a Big Northern Conference East title and clinching its first playoff berth in three seasons disappeared with one play in Week 8.
The Cogs, after missing a two-point conversion that would have given them the lead against Harvard, then recovering an onside kick, turned the ball over on the first play of the possession.
It left an entire locker room devastated.
“Friday night was miserable, Saturday morning wasn’t much better,” G-K coach Travis Frederick said. “Monday, we got in the film room and I told them, ‘We can’t have a pity party. If you can’t get past it, then you’re putting yourself behind the eight ball against Marengo.’ ”
The same scene happened only 40 miles away in Yorkville. DeKalb entered with a 4-3 record and a chance to become playoff eligible for the first time since 2010. Instead, the Barbs dropped a 14-7 decision to the Foxes, another close defeat in a season when one game might make the difference between playing on that coveted first weekend in November.
“It was pretty much dead silent all the way back,” DeKalb coach Matt Weckler said about the bus ride home. “For the most part, our kids were obviously very disappointed, not only the outcome of the game, but the bigger picture of the individual performances as well.”
But for all that was on the line last week for G-K and DeKalb, more pressure follows the two teams into Week 9. Last week there was breathing room, the knowledge that a loss only hurt, but didn’t completely squash, their postseason dreams.
This week there is no second option available. For the Cogs and Barbs, it’s the playoff game before the playoffs. And althought all the coaches and players know the situation, they don’t want it to effect how they look at tonight’s matchups.
“You just gotta go out there and prepare like it’s another game,” G-K quarterback Griffin McNeal said. “It’s just a regular-season game – even though it’s a big one, you have to prepare like it’s a normal game.”
The Cogs and Barbs mirror each other in more ways than just their three-year playoff droughts. Both struggled through less-than-stellar 2012 seasons with younger rosters that couldn’t keep up with the teams in their conference. Although each team has its fair share of veteran senior leaders in 2013, they also have been bolstered by the addition of junior classes that experienced winning and success at the sophomore level.
Now both of them are fighting to make that next step, and it’s up to each coaching staff to find the balance between the positive and negative affects of pressure.
“We don’t want the stress level to be very high or the anxiety to be very high,” Weckler said. “We want to play our game. We focused a lot on ourselves this week and putting in our game plan.”
DeKalb finds itself in a historically familiar position, playing Rochelle in Week 9 with a playoff berth on the line. In 2010, DeKalb came through with a 38-7 win. In 2011, a 42-13 loss ended their season.
On paper, G-K would appear to have the easier matchup, facing a Marengo team that snapped a 15-game losing streak last week. Yet, there never is a sure thing in high school football.
“Everybody’s pretty confident, not too overconfident,” McNeal said. “You can’t look past Marengo as they are a 1-7 team, but they can play, they can definitely play.”
And so after eight weeks it comes down to one game. Although the playoffs are a notable accomplishment for every team, the significance of a fifth win is especially big for G-K and DeKalb.
“You really want it for them more than anything,” Frederick said. “It would be a huge lift because our program has been down, not for lack of effort, but there’s a lot to overcome with a shortage of numbers. It’s nice to have everything build back up.”
“It would be huge for the program as a whole,” Weckler said. “Like everything else, it’s good to have a goal or something you’re shooting for. That’s the way it is throughout life. It’s big for our lower levels to see how much work you put in and what you get out of all that hard work, as well.”