In the beginning, it was all about saving those Friday night lights.
At 7 p.m. Friday, under the lights at Monmouth College in Monmouth, two schools with enrollments of fewer than 300 students will meet in the first 8-man football state championship game in Illinois.
The Illinois 8-Man Football Association will host its inaugural championship game between Alden-Hebron and Milford-Cissna Park. It is not an IHSA-sanctioned event (the IHSA designates 8-man football an “emerging sport”), and there are only six member schools in the I8FA.
But don’t tell the Giants or the Bearcats that Friday’s game doesn’t mean anything.
A-H coach John Lalor told his players that they are going to be a part of history.
“This is the first 8-man championship game,” Lalor said. “And yeah, it’s not an IHSA championship, but it is an association 8-man football championship. So I said, ‘You’re going to be part of history. Win or lose.’ I think it’s kind of cool.”
The Giants (6-3) defeated Judah Christian in the semifinals of the four-team playoff to reach the title game. Milford-Cissna Park (7-2) beat A-H in the regular season, 78-34, on Oct. 5, a game in which A-H trailed by six at halftime.
A-H is in its second season playing 8-man football. The I8FA did not form until after the 2017 season, and this is the first 8-man postseason.
In Dec. 2016, Lalor announced his intentions for A-H to play 8-man football. Milford-Cissna Park and Judah Christian jumped on board in 2018. According to I8FA.org, at least two more schools are committed for next season: Polo and River Ridge.
Lalor said one southern Wisconsin school is considering joining, and as many as six additional Illinois schools are considering 8-man for 2019. Lalor said the I8FA has asked schools to notify it of their intentions by Jan. 1.
“People ask us about the transition all the time, and there really wasn’t one. It’s just football,” said Clint Schwartz, the coach at Milford-Cissna Park.
The Bearcats played 11-man football last season. In December, low participation numbers indicated the program needed to make a change or risk losing its football team altogether.
Now the Bearcats are playing in a championship game, something they never did in 14 IHSA playoff appearances dating to 1975. A-H never reached an IHSA championship game in 13 playoff appearances, all but one under Lalor’s tutelage.
“We’ve never had the opportunity to be playing [in] a state championship game,” Schwartz said. “Those opportunities don’t come around very often. I know our administration is beyond excited for it, and we’re really making a push for the public to try to get people to make the trip over there.”
Schwartz noted that the community was excited just to continue the Friday night football tradition.
On the football field, Milford-Cissna Park is “really fast,” Lalor said, and the Bearcats' running backs gave the Giants fits in October. Kennedy Kunsch rushed for 186 yards in the Bearcats’ semifinal victory over Christian Life last week.
Schwartz called A-H quarterback Brad Judson “a stud.” Judson has thrown for 1,460 yards and 25 touchdowns, while completing 56 percent of his passes this season. He also leads A-H with 894 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
“Brad has played really well at quarterback,” Lalor said. “He’s really matured. He’s reading things better.”
Receiver Tomi Mor has caught 26 passes for 660 yards and 13 scores. Aven Strobel has rushed for 454 yards and four touchdowns.
Win or lose, Friday’s game will be historic. The Giants are hoping to bring home some hardware, too.
“It’s going to be a great night to promote the game of 8-man football,” Lalor said. ”Now that we have our playoffs, we’re going to actually have a state champ. That’s just going to draw more attention.”