Drew Paszotta, Dre Brown and Jack Sauter first met Matt Weckler even before he was their coach.
The three DeKalb football veterans took Weckler on a tour of the high school when he was a finalist for the Barbs’ head coaching position last winter.
Although it was the players’ goal to get to know Weckler better, the former Belvidere football coach formed an immediate impression of his three future leaders.
“They seemed like three really dedicated, very genuine student-athletes that were very passionate about their school, very passionate about them wanting the football program to be better and there to be some stability,” Weckler said. “To make football enjoyable and fun and energetic, that’s the atmosphere they gave me, just wanting some excitement in the program.”
Weckler took the job in February and brought his team together in the school’s performing arts center for their first meeting. There, he introduced himself and new defensive coordinator Dan Smaha.
More than anything, he laid out his expectations for the program, and most of them were vastly different than in the past.
“In the first meeting he was intense,” Paszotta said. “He wasn’t trying to make friends with the players, letting everybody know right away that we’re going to have to work really hard and it was going to be a tough season. But if we want to be good, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Eight months later and after a 5-4 regular season, the Barbs are in the postseason for the first time in three years. It’s only the second time they’ve won five games in the regular season since 1989. The Barbs travel to Batavia in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs at 7 p.m. today
It’s been a major transformation for a team that ended last year with a 2-7 record and without a permanent coach in place.
“Last year was really tough,” Paszotta said. “We had a lot of trouble going through the season and didn’t end up very well.”
Weckler told the Daily Chronicle in February that making the playoffs was a definite possibility for a team that he thought had untapped potential. The relatively new athletic facilities only added to his enthusiasm for the opportunity.
Yet there was work to do for Weckler, who is DeKalb’s third coach in three seasons. He needed his team to buy in immediately and develop a trust. So the first thing Weckler did after taking the job was get in contact with his former tour guides – Paszotta, Sauter and Brown. He gave them a better understanding of what we wanted and entrusted them to help him in the process.
“Having those guys jump on board, it helped out some of the other guys to follow their footsteps,” Weckler said. “Peer pressure plays a big role in the success of anything. It can be positive or negative, and in this situation it was positive.”
There was better participation in DeKalb’s offseason workouts, and players thrived with increased structure and organization. Weckler said he lost some players in the process, but knew he was left with the ones he wanted.
He emphasized keeping a positive train of thought, something difficult to do when success has been rare at any level of the football program. Weckler wanted the players, the parents, the school faculty and the DeKalb community to get on board.
A Week 1 comeback victory over Vernon Hills only helped the cause. Despite close losses to Hampshire and Yorkville, DeKalb made big strides as the players became accustomed to Weckler’s system and the coaching staff tailored the offense toward its players’ strengths. The defense showed the biggest improvement, giving up eight fewer points a game than in 2012.
In a must-win situation, DeKalb came through with a 46-41 win over Rochelle at home last week.
“[Last] Friday it was crazy,” Paszotta said. “Everybody was so excited, especially for me being a senior. We got to make the playoffs, something that hasn’t been done often in past years.”
Now DeKalb finds itself playing on the first weekend of November, the goal for every team in the state.
And although Weckler’s original playoff projection already had been realized, quicker than many thought, he doesn’t see this year’s result as a finish line.
“We have to keep moving forward. Hopefully, our younger kids realize that 5-4 is the standard, and after this, getting into the playoffs is somewhere we can be and we should be,” Weckler said. “Winning games in the playoffs is something we should now focus on.”