CRYSTAL LAKE – In the moments after a stunning, double-overtime playoff loss to De La Salle, the Crystal Lake Central Tigers tried their best to maintain their composure.
It wasn't easy. On Saturday, nothing was.
“We laid it on the field,” said Connor Hines, one of the Tigers' starting linebackers, after the 38-35 loss. “We gave it everything we had. We just didn't come out with the win.”
The heartbreak will linger, as it usually does for losing teams at this time of year.
But no final box score could do justice to the Tigers' strength or their opponent's size.
At Central exists an elite group of football players known as the 1,300-pound club. To gain admission, one must lift 1,300 pounds combined via the bench press, squat and dead lift.
This season, three seniors achieved the milestone: linebacker Nathan Talbott (5-10, 200 pounds), linebacker Connor Hines (5-10, 210) and defensive end Josh Mugler (5-10, 205).
The path to the club was demanding and often thankless. Each of the players woke up about 5 a.m., headed to school for their 6 a.m. weightlifting sessions, and then prepared for a long day of classes, followed by practice, followed by homework, followed by getting ready for another early-morning lift.
“Almost every hour, that's what we thought about,” said Mugler, who joined the club with a 355-pound bench press, a 535-pound dead lift and a 460-pound squat. “All we wanted was to be the strongest and be the best we could be.”
They were terrific, winning eight of nine games during the regular season to earn a No. 3 seed in the IHSA Class 6A playoffs. But as the Tigers took the field against No. 14 seed De Le Salle, they quickly came to realize that the Meteors had mammoth size.
Picture gravel trucks with cleats. That's what De La Salle's offensive line looked like.
Left tackle Jamarco Jones (6-6, 300) has committed to play for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Right tackle Aaron Roberts (6-6, 295) has committed to play at Syracuse. And interior linemen Javon Burruss (6-5, 315), Aaron Rodriguez (6-2, 280) and Alan Bilina (5-10, 235) are no small fries, either.
All told, De La Salle's front line qualified for the 1,425-pound club.
It was unlike anything Central had seen.
“Never,” Hines said. “Not all season.”
“No, not at once,” Talbott said. “You might see one [big guy] on one team, but not three guys at once.”
“It felt like we were going against D-I linemen,” Mugler said. “That's what it felt like.”
Although badly outsized, the Tigers fought hard on the line of scrimmage. They nearly won the game, too, if not for a tip here, a miss there – the type of plays that define football in November.
Tigers coach Matt Fralik praised his 1,300-pound club members for setting an example for the team.
“They're all in,” Fralick said. “They're in the weight room five days a week. They lift in the mornings, they lift on their own. They bleed orange and black. They love it.”
Before they left the field for the final time this season, the Tigers' strongmen reflected on a great regular season with a gut-wrenching playoff ending.
What should people remember about this team? What should people know?
“What should people know, ...” Mugler said, his voice trailing.
A couple of seconds passed as the Tigers' linebacker weighed the question.
“People should know the effort it took for us to get to where we are,” Mugler said. “I'm proud of each and every one of the guys for getting up in the morning and working.
“It's not only us, it's the whole team. A lot of guys were close to the 1,300-pound club. We have most of the team in the 1,000-pound club.
“Everyone wanted to be the strongest and the best they could be. And that's the attitude on the team.”
That attitude will linger long after the heartbreak begins to heal.
After all, the 1,300-pound club will need a few new members next season.
“It hurts knowing that we put in all this time and effort in the offseason, and we fell short of winning,” Talbott said. “But I think that we set the level higher for younger people, so they have something to reach when we're done.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.