From observing the Sycamore football team just before an afternoon practice starts, it’d be hard to tell the Spartans were under any pressure and in the midst of one of the best seasons in school history.
The group seemingly is always relaxed and joking around. But once the coaches’ whistles blow and warmups start, they’re all business.
“We’re always locked in at practice,” Sycamore senior defensive end Josh Hunt said. “At the end of the day, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do to get ready.”
That focus starts from the top with a large and experienced senior class. Many of them were starters as juniors last year and some played big roles as sophomores in 2011.
But Sycamore coach Joe Ryan says this year’s junior class has fit right in with them.
“I think we all have the same goals and we all know what we want to do,” Sycamore senior safety Michael Stinnett said. “Going into practice every week and every day we all can work hard and focus to accomplish our goals.”
Stinnett said much of their focus started after Sycamore’s 24-22 defeat to Montini in the second round of the playoffs last year. They haven’t lost a game since, completing a perfect 9-0 regular season and the team’s first Northern Illinois Big 12 East championship.
They’ve done it despite an injury bug that just doesn’t seem to go away. Multiple starters, including two-way players, have missed games because of injury, but the next person in line hasn’t let a dropoff in production occur.
“The guys are paying attention in practice,” Stinnett said. “If someone goes down then someone steps up. They know what they’re doing.”
Ryan said this is the most consistent group of players he’s had in his 10 years at Sycamore, noting that there haven’t been a lot of bad days since summer camp.
While the team had lofty preseason expectations, some of which went beyond the nine-week regular season, Ryan said the Spartans have done a consistently good job of not looking ahead on the schedule, something that isn’t easy to do when marquee regular-season games like DeKalb and Kaneland are always surrounded by hype.
“These guys really buy into that. They understand that the next game is the most important game,” Ryan said. “They understand that that’s the most important thing they have on their plate at that time.”
Now Sycamore is back in the same position as last year, traveling on the road in the second round to face a highly ranked suburban private school. The Spartans have lost in the second round three consecutive years and the taste of last year’s loss still remains.
“I’ve been a part of it and I think it was my sophomore year we lost to Rochelle and obviously we played Montini last year,” Hunt said. “You never want to end your season with a loss especially not your senior year. We don’t want to lose, we want to end the season 14-0 at NIU.”