Win and in: Why the playoffs started early for North Boone football
POPLAR GROVE — For North Boone players and coaches, the playoffs began back on Oct. 8, when back-to-back losses to the league's two elite teams had the Vikings staring at a 2-4 record with three games to go.
Win all three, and North Boone would most likely make the playoffs. Lose any one of them, and the Vikings were out.
"It was pretty cut-and-dry," North Boone's first-year coach Ryan Kelley said. "We knew what had to be done."
Fast forward two weeks, and North Boone and its vaunted aerial attack is just one win away from that three-game win streak that would keep their season alive. They are the only team in the Big Northern Conference, and the lone squad in the Rockford area in this position. The Vikings host 2-6 Oregon on Friday night, and a win gets them into the postseason, while a loss will put an end to it all.
"We really haven't shied away from talking about it — we've been saying for a few weeks now, we have to win or we'll be going home after this Friday's game," Kelley said. "And it's a little more real now, heading into that last game. Especially the seniors know, this is it."
How they dug the hole
North Boone's four losses have come to the league's upper echelon, and two were tight battles — Stillman Valley (21-13) and Genoa-Kingston (28-14) — while two were not — Byron (49-7) and Dixon (50-7).
During the Byron game, first-year starting quarterback Chandler Alderman left with a concussion in the first half; he also missed the next game, the close loss to Stillman Valley. North Boone's spread offense is reliant on strong play from the QB (previous Viking quarterbacks Britton Morris and Logan Emanuel led the league, and the area, in passing) and Alderman has put up powerful numbers.
"That was tough to sit out and watch, and we knew we had to get it going and get some wins," said Alderman, who, even after missing a game and a half, leads the league and the area with 1,460 passing yards and 20 TDs this season. "But since then, we've really come together. Everyone knows that we have to win out, and everyone has been so focused on doing their jobs, and doing what we have to do to win."
How they got out
North Boone sat at 2-4 following a hard-fought 21-13 home loss to Stillman Valley on Oct. 1. Although their last three games were against three of the bottom four teams in the league, it was still a tall order — win out, or miss the playoffs.
"It's definitely been a roller-coaster of a season. … but after that Stillman (Valley) game, everything changed," said leader and wide receiver Will Doetch, who leads the area with 68 catches for 940 yards with 11 TDs. "All the captains got together and we said 'We've got to get this right. This is our last chance.' "
The biggest hurdle was last week, when 3-4 North Boone faced 3-4 Winnebago. The loser's playoff hopes were dimmed. With Alderman and Doetch tearing it up, the Vikings tore out of the gates, grabbing a 27-0 first-quarter lead and never looking back.
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North Boone hammered Winnebago 47-10.
"We all knew it was time to win, or toss it in, and there was no way that was going to happen," senior North Boone offensive and defensive lineman Bryce Nolen said. "The playoffs have always been on the top of our list for what we want to accomplish this year, so we couldn't let it get away from us. We knew, it was time to step it up, or we were done."
Alderman, who wasn't sacked last Friday and was rarely even pressured, finished 23-for-34 passing for 413 yards and six touchdowns — career highs for him in yards and TDs. Doetch had 11 catches for 212 yards.
"Everything was right on: the play calls, the blocking, our receivers were getting open, it was just on," Alderman said. "That's how North Boone can play football. … Now, we know, we have to do it again."
What's it going to take
Kelley doesn't really care how his team does it, he just knows they need a win Friday night. This is not a game where he's going to worry about how they look.
"We're just going to keep it simple, because in this one, it's just get it done anyway possible," Kelley said. "Win by any means possible. Style points go out the window for this one."
However, this is a team that, when clicking, is pretty stylish anyway. Ever since now-offensive coordinator Aaron Sullivan, who was the Vikings' coach for 14 seasons, came in back in 2006, North Boone's spread offense has evolved into one of the most dangerous small-school passing offenses in the area.
And now it's going to have to shine if it's to carry them into the playoffs.
"This is who we are, and we're ready," Alderman said. "It's pretty crazy that it all comes down to this one game. It's pretty cool.
"It's going to be fun."