Aquin strives for a perfect 11-man football last hurrah before switching to 8-man

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Aquin quarterback Will Gustafson has more than 5,000 career rushing and passing yards and leads the Bulldogs, ranked No. 2 in Class 1A in their final season of 11-man football.

FREEPORT — Aquin’s grand football history is displayed on the stadium gates, noting the Bulldogs won state Class 1A titles in 1981, 1986 and 2005.

“Every time they announce the home of Aquin football, they say three-time state champs,” coach Broc Kundert said. “That’s a pretty small group of teams in the state who can say they are three-time state champs. Tradition is a huge thing at Aquin.”

But Aquin tradition is changing. Soon. The school has only 103 students — 171 according to the IHSA private-school multiplier — and it has become increasingly harder to attract enough players to field a full football team. So the Bulldogs will join a growing number of their NUIC conference rivals and switch to 8-man football next year, which is not yet a recognized IHSA sport.

But before the Bulldogs downsize, they would like to cast a huge shadow like so many Aquin teams before them. Aquin is bowing out of 11-man football in style. The Bulldogs were 11-1 last year, losing only to undefeated state champion Lena-Winslow in the state semifinals, and are 4-0 this year, ranked second to Le-Win in The Associated Press football poll. They are No. 1 in the coaches poll, one spot ahead of Le-Win.

More:Aquin ranked second in 1A Associated Press football poll

“It’s special being the last 11-man Aquin team,” senior linebacker/offensive tackle Aidan Curry said before practice Thursday. “I wish we could have had a chance in the playoffs, but we are looking to come out No. 1 and undefeated.

“It’s cool being at the top in the coaches poll, but we really want the other one. We think we are the top team out there. We still have to show people, especially in this Forreston game, that we are at the top.”

Aquin (4-0) plays Saturday night at Forreston (2-1), which has won three Class 1A state titles since 2014.

“That’s basically our Super Bowl for us,” senior wide receiver/linebacker Andrew Bowman said.

Win this game, especially after beating Class 3A Durand/Pecatonica, now 3-1, in their opener, and Aquin will make a strong case for being the best team in the state.

“It’s definitely not the same thing as winning state, but at least we could say we were No. 1 and there wasn’t a team around that could beat us, except maybe teams we weren’t allowed to play,” Curry said.

Aquin made its first statement when it beat Du/Pec 28-21 in the season opener.

“You want to play the best; you want to prove yourself,” said Bowman, who is second in the NUIC in receiving with 276 yards. “That was a great game. I wasn’t too happy with our schedule, but once I saw Du/Pec was on there, I was super excited we would be able to face a team of their caliber. They are a lot like us. They pass the ball a lot, they’ve got some great receivers and they’ve got a great quarterback.

“You always want to win, but those close ones make it even sweeter when you are able to get that win.”

“All of us felt this was our year to go downstate and win it,” senior quarterback/defensive back Will Gustafson said. “Going undefeated is our way of looking at we are the state champs. And playing those tougher teams helps prove you are the best team in the state.

"We were all bummed that we don’t get Lena this year. We felt that could be a game for the ages. We just have to do well with what we have.”

That means, in particular, beating Forreston and Du/Pec.

So far, one down.

Du/Pec’s Hunter Hoffman easily leads the NUIC with 1,047 yards passing and 16 touchdowns. Aquin’s Gustafson led the league as a junior with 1,831 yards and 22 TD passes but hasn’t had to throw as much this year because the Bulldogs have been so dominant on the ground.

Ty Stykel and Gustafson who both rushed for over 1,000 yards as juniors, rank 1-2 in the NUIC with 616 and 598 yards rushing in four games.

“That’s due to the men up front who are playing so well,” Stykel said.

Aquin senior Andrew Bowman catches a pass in the Bulldogs' 28-21 season-opening win over Durand/Pecatonica, the Rivermen's only loss of the season.

Aquin, one of the first teams in the area to adopt the spread offense, has long been known for passing, but the Bulldogs usually run at least as well as they pass. They don’t expect that to change when they move to 8-man football.

“Football is football,” coach Kundert said. “You’ve got to be blocking. You’ve got to be tackling. The scheme will be a little different, but if we block better and tackle better than the other team, we are going to have a chance to win.

“That’s not going to change in 8-man. That’s what Aquin football is all about and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.

“Going to 8-man is going to be the wave of the future for a lot of schools. It’s not like we had a choice. I don’t think any of these teams are doing it to duck the competition. We’re just running low on kids. Most of them are excited about it.”

And all of them are proud to go down in history as the last 11-man team in Aquin’s proud history. And they aim to make that last season one of the great Aquin seasons.

“Being the last 11-man team, we feel like we have to go out with a bang,” Gustafson said.

“It means everything to be a Bulldog,” said Brennan Carlson, seventh in the NUIC with 191 yards receiving. “The most important thing to me is the brotherhood with your friends. That’s the best part about Aquin football; we’re just one huge family together.

“Being the last 11-man team is something we look forward to, being recognized in the history books.”

"As soon as I saw we were going to 8-man next year," Bowman said, "I knew this would be a really good class to end it with."

Aquin football will change next year. But it might not change that much. There will be three fewer players on the field for each team, but Aquin still expects to be an annual power.

“The football team will always be the same; the only difference will be the number of people on the field,” Stykel said. “And if the fans come out and keep supporting us, it will feel the same.”

Matt Trowbridge:; @matttrowbridge