Chicago Phillips football coach Troy McAllister would be lying if he said he had envisioned his football team where it is now when he took over the program in 2010.
McAllister’s team will suit up 46 players for the state semifinal game Friday at Johnsburg. At his first practice in 2010, 12 players showed up.
Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood recently had been designated an Academy for Urban School Leadership-turnaround school, meaning the school was in trouble and an entirely new staff was coming in to shake things up.
Fast forward six years: The Wildcats are playing for their third consecutive trip to the IHSA Class 4A state finals.
Phillips lost the state title game to Rochester in 2014. It was the first championship game appearance for a Chicago Public League team since 1982. The Wildcats made it back last year and pounded Belleville Althoff, 51-7, for the CPL’s first state title.
“It’s incremental steps,” McAllister said. “You have to have your tough losses along the way."
The journey has been improbable for Phillips and for the man who has led it. A Canadian football coach who played his college ball at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, is hardly the man one might expect to lead a team on Chicago’s South Side to a state title.
Now, the expectations have changed.
“We’re kind of in uncharted territory,” McAllister said. “We want to maintain this little run we’ve got going. I think the mentality of the young men in our program now is they’re winners and that’s what they want to be.”
In each of the past two state title game runs, Phillips beat Johnsburg along the way. Like McAllister said: you have to have tough losses along the way.
Although the schools and communities are much different, Johnsburg has made a similar rise from futility into uncharted territory. Not so long ago, Johnsburg muddled its way through back-to-back 0-9 seasons and at one point lost 25 consecutive games.
“You’re going to attract a lot of people to your school and to your area if you have a lot of success,” Johnsburg coach Dan DeBoeuf said. “This is the third straight playoff appearance for us. If we can win on Friday and take a trip down to Champaign, I think that’s only going to help our program.”
DeBoeuf is in his second year as the head coach. Barry Creviston coached the first 0-9 season in 2011. Mike Maloney, now the coach at Marian Central, coached the second 0-9 season in 2012. The Skyhawks finished 1-8 the next year and then jumped to 9-2 in 2014 with a playoff appearance in Maloney's last year before DeBoeuf took over.
Now the Skyhawks will play in their first state semifinal. DeBoeuf knows that the younger kids are watching – the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who might one day want to suit up for the Skyhawks. The long-term success of any program hinges on the ability to convince the younger kids that they could one day play for a state title.
DeBoeuf said a trip to Champaign would be a “dream come true” for the players and the staff.
“(We’ve) had some guys on our staff who have been pretty close,” DeBoeuf said. “Our defensive coordinator (Sam Lesniak) went to the quarters when he was at Minooka (as a player). I went to the quarters when I was at Lemont (as a player). For the kids and for the coaches, it would be a dream come true. The belief is there, and I think our players right now are thinking that this is going to happen.”
The defending champions stand in their way. Phillips returns about 35 players from last year’s Class 4A state championship squad.
“Last year’s seniors, that was their legacy, being state champs,” McAllister said. “This year’s seniors, they’re trying to get back to the game. First and foremost, we’re focused on Johnsburg and getting there.”