JOHNSBURG – This is a story that is often told, about the bond between a recovering small town and its gutty football team.
To be technical, the town is a village. Population 6,337, according to the 2010 census. It’s a small enough place that a former coach liked to crack, “I’ve lived here eight years. I haven’t found downtown yet.”
In late 2007, the recession came here, like most parts of the country. The roofs that were being raised came to a halt. Construction crews left. School enrollments, once thought to rise, stalled.
Over the ensuing years, the town watched the high school football team struggle. From 2010 to 2013, the team went 5-31, a dismal run that included two winless seasons. But suddenly this fall, under the direction of a former Big Ten lineman, it started winning.
The Johnsburg High School football team is 8-1 now, winner of eight straight, a mere 13 months removed from when it had dropped 25 consecutive games. This fall, it captured an outright Big Northern Conference East Division title. On Saturday, when it plays Aurora Central Catholic, it will host a Class 4A playoff game for the first time in five years.
The turnaround can be seen beyond the sidelines. It's promoted optimism at the Community Men’s Club, instead of the usual second guessing. Yard signs that read “Home Game Friday, Come Support Your Team” sprout from the foliage along Spring Grove Road. On Wednesday nights before each home game, fathers and alumni volunteer to paint the end zones a checkered blue and gold.
“When you play high school sports, you’re in the business of building up your community,” said Chris Leathers, a former fullback and a 2005 graduate. “And with the economy kind of where it was at for a long time, Johnsburg suffered. To see our boys, to see our high school being successful, I think it gives people hope. It makes people proud of where they're from.”
• • •
This is a story that begins in a weight room.
Atop the back wall in a cramped, one-floor wooden building behind the football field at Johnsburg is a gold sign that reads, “The road to champions begins in this room.”
For the Skyhawks, it did. When Mike Maloney took over as coach after the 2011 season, among his first orders of business was to put in a strict offseason weightlifting program. Four days a week. Mandatory. No excuses.
“It’s what we needed,” senior fullback Bailey Stefka said. “I mean, before, we weren’t doing so good, so we all knew something had to change.”
The grueling schedule contrasted previous regimes, which Stefka said were “relaxed.” Coaches opened the weight room after school, but players could come and go as they pleased.
This time, Maloney expected them to show up. All of them.
“If you didn’t come to a lift, he would personally come to your classroom to talk to you and tell you that you needed to be there,” senior quarterback Nick Brengman said. “It’s a culture shock.”
Maloney had his reasoning.
“The one thing I thought was missing, the critical, key point to our entire program, was the structural support,” he said. “Accountability. That was the No. 1 thing.”
To emphasize that, he painted a step ladder. Four virtues – love, loyalty, trust, obedience – are painted on the legs. Maloney describes them as the “absolute foundation for human relations.” Four other virtues are inscripted on the steps: character, work ethic, commitment and teamwork, what are needed to set up the climb.
“The peak here,” Maloney said, pointing to it after a midweek practice in October, “is the teamwork and the synergy we have.”
Before they take the field for each game, they carry the ladder out of the locker room. It’s a ladder that’s at the heart of the program.
• • •
This is a story that features a young coach growing up.
Before 32-year-old Mike Maloney arrived at Johnsburg, he was 3-25 in two stints as a head coach – one season at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago and two seasons at Joliet Central. His record was an eyesore.
“I don’t know if you can look at it on paper,” said Maloney’s high school coach, Joliet Catholic’s Dan Sharp. “I think you’ve had to look at the situations he’s had.”
Neither situation was easy. St. Ignatius was in its fourth year fielding a team. Joliet Central had split from Joliet Township the year Maloney arrived, dividing the talent pool. It’s worth noting Joliet Central still hasn’t won a game since the split, 0-27 in the three seasons since Maloney left.
Regardless, he took on the challenges, and he took his lumps.
His first two seasons at Johnsburg, however, weren’t easy, either. Before this season’s turnaround, the Skyhawks went 1-17.
His transition into coaching contrasts his playing career.
At Joliet Catholic, the 6-foot-3 Maloney played on both the offensive and defensive lines, was an all-state selection and captained the Hilltoppers to a 1999 Class 4A state title. At Illinois, he was on the Fighting Illini’s 2002 Sugar Bowl team.
In his sixth season as a head coach, he seems to have recaptured some of that success, if not willed it.
“I couldn't be happier for anyone, for Mike, with the success he’s having this year because I know how hard he’s worked,” Sharp said. “I talked to him during those down periods, trying to build a winner at a place where it’s almost impossible. He never gave up. That’s one thing about him as a player, too. He never gave up in a game, never gave up on a play. Every play was a Super Bowl.”
• • •
This is a story that is a bit of a redux.
Nineteen years ago, another coach arrived at Johnsburg with a winning pedigree.
Bob Bradshaw had won 152 games in 25 seasons as the head coach at Woodstock, a run that included a 1983 Class 4A state championship.
Like Maloney, he saw a program down on its luck. The school opened in the fall of 1978, breaking off from McHenry, but it had never reached the playoffs on the gridiron. It had only four winning seasons in school history. Over the first 17 years of its existence, it was a meager 45-108.
But Bradshaw walked in, carrying a sparkling résumé.
“I always talked real positively about winning the championship, and going to the playoffs,” Bradshaw, now 75, said. “A lot of them thought I was crazy, to be honest with you. But I believed. And the ones who bought in changed the program.”
In the first season, they went 5-4. By the second season they went to the playoffs, the first of five in his tenure.
Bradshaw proved you could win at this little McHenry County school. Beginning with his first playoff appearance in 1996, the Skyhawks went to the playoffs 10 times in 14 years.
“I felt, maybe I’m cocky, we changed the mentality of the school,” Bradshaw said. “Football starts the season. If you’re successful, it changes the whole spirit.”
• • •
This is a story that talks about pride.
Stefka saw pride earlier this month at Halftime’s, a pizza joint that sits just south of the high school near the bank of the Fox River.
“I was sitting at a table, and the people next to us are talking about the Johnsburg football team turning things around,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Anna Fox, the student body president, saw pride further away from campus – the season opener Aug. 29 at Oregon, which is 80 miles west.
“We had more [fans] than the home team,” she said.
That’s not to say Fox didn’t see it at home, in the hallways on Fridays before home games.
“You rarely ever see someone not wearing blue and gold,” she said.
Tyler Burmeister, a sophomore who played freshman football last season, saw a change in attitude.
“It [stunk] because you hear all the stuff how you can’t win,” he said, remembering the previous years. “Now, these guys, they come and they win.”
Tom Curry, the president of Jr. Skyhawks, the affiliated youth football program, saw pride from his 8-year-old son, who insisted on wearing his uniform for the games Friday nights. Pads and all.
Scott Rowe, who coaches a middle school team, saw it when four players signed up after the season started, later in September, drawn by the wins.
“I just think it’s one of those things where success breeds pride, and pride breeds success,” said Rowe, who also sits on the school board as vice president. “It’s a snowball effect.”
• • •
This is a story that could come with a disclaimer.
Part of Johnsburg’s on-the-field struggles in recent seasons were tied to its membership in the Fox Valley Conference, a conference that includes a good number of Class 6A, 7A and 8A schools.
But this season it returned to the Big Northern Conference, which it had been a part of as recently as the 2005 season.
The move, coupled with the string of success, has promoted a few sneers.
“I find it funny how’s [sic] Johnsburg makes the playoffs but if they were to play real teams they would get killed,” read the anonymous Twitter account, “Smack FVC!” last weekend.
Based on school enrollment, however, Johnsburg is no giant in the BNC. Of the seven East Division schools, only two – Genoa-Kingston and Rockford Christian – are smaller.
But still, were they licking their chops?
“Oh, for sure,” senior linebacker Austin Koontz said. “It was great. Being outnumbered by playing a school like Jacobs or Huntley, where we’re off the bus and we’re outnumbered, it’s intimidating. It is. It’s nice to be able to put a fight up, to come into the BNC and have a chance, a fighting chance.”
• • •
This is a story that lacks an ending.
Perhaps it’s a simple one. It’s a one-year feel-good story, spurred on by a once-in-a-decade senior class, led by Brengman, a three-year starter at quarterback, by Stefka, described by Maloney as the face of the program, by Haden Franzen, a lanky 6-foot-2 receiver with a pair of mits for hands, by a burly offensive line that fashions itself as “Da Dudes.”
A flash in the pan. High school football can be cyclical. Varying by talent.
Or, perhaps, the ending can be encapsulated by Maloney's postgame speech Oct. 17 after a 7-0 win at Burlington Central.
After the win that clinched the BNC East title, Maloney gathered his team in the southwest end zone. They took a knee. He praised the running game. He praised the defense for shutting out an offense that entered the game averaging 27 points a game. For him, these are the program's two hallmarks.
And then he reminded them.
“This is the norm,” coach Mike Maloney told them. “This is Johnsburg football.”
A new norm. Perhaps they are just getting started.
On the 38-man roster, 20 are sophomores, including maybe the team’s most talented player in 5-foot-9 running back Alex Peete, who has rushed for 1,225 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, and another speedy back, Blake Lemcke. Six sophomores start. It’s a big reason Maloney opted against fielding a sophomore team. His sophomores, who went 6-3 as a freshman team a season ago in the FVC, play varsity.
Perhaps Maloney has built his own Joliet Catholic 75 miles north of the Steel City, relying on the same Wing-T running attack and lunch pail work ethic.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “Our kids are believing.”
This is a story that continues Saturday afternoon.