By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
ERIE, Ill. -- Chuck Milem met with the seniors on this year’s Erie/Prophetstown football team before they even became Panthers and saw the potential. But, for those who call it a quick turnaround for a 1-8 team two years ago to go 8-3 this season, he begs to differ.
Milem, who has guided back-back teams into the Illinois high school playoffs, has been named Clinton Herald Coach of the Year in football.
“This is my sixth year,” he said after the Panthers exited from the Class 3A playoffs earlier this month. “About the fourth year we kind of saw a lot of change, and the fifth year, here we go, we got in the playoffs. Then here we are today. It might look fast now, but it was long for me in those first few years.”
The transformation has impressed his peers.
“I love that guy,” Fulton coach Patrick Lower said. “He’s one of those guys who works hard at what he does. I consider him a friend.
“When he took the program over I believe they were 1-8 and the year before had only 15 or so players. Now they have had their first playoff win, first home playoff game and they have 60 kids in their program. He came in and established a program. There were some rough years, but now they’re reaping the benefits of doing things the right way.”
Milem took over in 2008 after a pair of 1-8 seasons. His first team finished with the same mark, but the next one went 3-6, and he saw encouraging signs.
“I remember meeting on this field (in Erie) -- when our seventh and eighth grades -- weren’t even co-ops, and those (2013) seniors played each other right here in their JFL game their eighth-grade year,” Milem recalled. “I came out here and brought them all together, and I said, ‘We’ve got a lot of talent here on both sides. You’ve got good linemen, and you’ve got good skill players, and if we put this team together we’ll have fun.’ I can remember that conversation like it was yesterday.”
Another 3-6 season followed in 2010, but a dip back to 1-8 in 2011 was not a sign of things to come.
Led by Zach Inskeep, last year’s Herald Player of the Year, the Panthers went 5-4 for their first winning season since going 6-4 in 2002, the second year of the co-op arrangement between Erie and Prophetstown. Then this fall, that group of eighth-graders that Milem talked to four years ago, led the way to a 7-2 regular season, the first playoff win in the program’s history and an 8-3 record overall.
“The seniors last year that we had set a bar for the groups coming in,” Milem said.
This Class of 2014 raised it.
Led by three-year starting quarterback Ethan Howard, Herald co-Players of the Year Owen McConnell and Nick Williams and senior-dominated lines, the Cardinals went 7-2 in the regular season, when a only a loss to Class 2A state finalist Sterling Newman prevented them from winning the Three Rivers Conference North Division title. Next came the first playoff win since the co-op arrangement started in 2001.
And, since the team that beat them in the second round, Stillman Valley, will play in Friday’s state championship game in DeKalb, it’s not hard for them to imagine how far they might have gotten if just a few things had been different that day that ended with a 24-14 loss.
With Howard sidelined, Jordan Chandler was thrust into a difficult role after taking over late in the first-round win against River Valley.
“Jordan, we think, is a kid who is poised beyond his years,” Milem said. “There were a few things we had to alter for him, but this was a great experience for him going into the future.”
As good as he’s going to be, though, he had nowhere near Howard’s experience.
“It does affect us because that speed is different from the first round,” Milem said. “That was a whole different level of speed. Jordan had never seen that all year (and) Ethan was used to that. Newman is the one that we would have seen that same speed coming at us defensively. Ethan has always held us together, been starting since he was a sophomore.”
And had there not been a howling wind in its face, Stillman Valley probably would have elected to punt when it faced fourth down at its own 20-yard line, trailing 8-0 in the second quarter. Instead, the Cardinals went for it, and an 80-yard touchdown run changed the momentum of the game.
Despite that loss, eight wins was the most for Erie players since the 1963 Cardinals squad went 9-0 and the most for the Prophetstown side since the Prophets went 9-2 in 1988. Before the 2002 Panthers -- the second year of a co-op arrangement between the schools -- Erie had never qualified for the playoffs individually, while Prophetstown hadn’t gone to the postseason since a run of five trips in six years ended in 1990.
Milem is hoping the foundation has been set for playoff runs to become an expectation, not an exception.
“I just think we build expectations in the offseason, and build expectations for our program all the way down to the JFL levels all the way through,” he said. “We feel like we’re building a tradition. Each year, the kids feel like they’re a part of that tradition and want to continue to build on it. There are expectations there now -- you’ve got to do it. That’s part of building a program, and I think we’ll continue to do that.”
Although graduation will claim some exceptional players, Milem will have returning talent next year, including All-Area lineman Dylan Binion and fellow sophomore Chandler, part of the first class that has played as one team since junior football in fifth grade.
It’s part of a foundation that Milem believes is established for continued success.
“It’s definitely a full process from working with the junior football program and offseason. Once the kids really bought in, it’s been fun to watch it go. It’s fun to watch the background with support from both towns.”