ROCKFORD – Some Harvard fans expressed skepticism a couple of years ago when football coach Tim Haak prepared for his retirement.
Haak figured it fitting that he leave in 2014 with his daughter, Mallory’s, senior class. Those senior players, however, did not have much success as freshmen or sophomores.
“Some of our football family said, ‘We’re worried they aren’t going to be very good, and we don’t want you to go out like that,’ ” Haak said.
Haak was going to stick with his guys, some of whom had been attending Mallory’s birthday parties since kindergarten.
The Hornets did not disappoint.
Rockford Lutheran dampened the spirits somewhat on Saturday with a 28-24 Class 4A quarterfinal playoff victory over the Hornets at Rockford Guilford’s stadium.
But Haak’s source of sadness came from something other than the end of his 29-year coaching career.
“You hurt for them because they’re hurting,” Haak said. “Anytime there’s a finality, you hurt for them. I think that’s what bothers you the most. It was very enjoyable. The only tears they have is because they don’t get to hang out [and practice] next week. They’re a remarkable group.”
The seniors didn’t win a game as freshmen. In their final 1 1/2 years of varsity, they won 15 games in a row before Saturday’s loss. In the fourth quarter, it looked like the Hornets would give themselves and their coach at least one more week.
Harvard (11-1) had a 24-14 lead to start the fourth quarter, but the Crusaders (11-1) rallied to win behind a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, mostly without using star running back James Robinson, who injured his left knee.
“The expectations were always high for us, but we weren’t really on the radar,” wide receiver-defensive back Justin Nolen said. “We started making a run, it speaks to what these guys can do, their personalities, their hard work, their dedication.”
While it was downplayed during the season, the players embraced being on Haak’s final team.
“It’s been special the whole time,” Nolen said. “We tried not to think about it, but it’s always in the back of our heads. It’s great to be the last one and do what we did as his last team.”
Haak, who finishes at 173-108, will teach physical education through the rest of the year and coach wrestling this winter. His players will take with them lessons for a lifetime.
“Dedication, hard work, you have to put your time in to get what you want,” said Hornets guard-defensive end Dakota Trebes, his eyes red and voice cracking. “We definitely made our mark. It’s been a heck of a year.”
Two of the first people to greet Haak as he walked off the field for the last time were former Hornets Mike Jones and Steve Wood. Jones played on Haak’s first team and is Libertyville’s coach; Wood played a few years later and now is Grayslake North’s coach.
Hornets offensive tackle-nose tackle Adam Freimund managed a smile as he spoke about their season.
“I’m extremely proud for all my extended family – we’re one big band of brothers,” Freimund said. “You can’t ask for anyone better. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t get it done in this game.”
The Hornets were a testament to everything their coach asked them to do – lifting, working, grinding, doing anything they could to get better.
Haak wanted to go out with them, and they should be gratified by sending him out in style.
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.