By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
ERIE, Ill. —
Last year, Erie/Prophetstown closed its football season with a 49-0 loss at Morrison to end a 1-8 season.
Late in the game, Panthers coach Chuck Milem told his players to remember that feeling and not let it happen again. It seems as if the Panthers took those words to heart.
“The kids definitely bought into what we’re doing as a program,” Milem said. “They bought into the offseason program and put their faith in our system for all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams. They’re very coachable.”
This season, Erie/Prophetstown beat Morrison 29-28 in Week 5 to improve to 3-2.
“That was a huge confidence builder,” Milem said. “We knew we had potential and a lot of talent. But after that win, we knew we could compete week in and week out.”
The win over the Mustangs started a three-game winning streak with a 41-0 win over Kewanee last Friday, which put the Panthers’ record at 5-2 and in good playoff position. A win in either of their final two regular-season games — hosting Sterling Newman on Friday and Peru St. Bede next Friday — would guarantee the Panthers a playoff spot.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Milem said. “It’s been quite some time since we’ve been at five wins, probably 10 years. It’s been a long time since we could even have a conversation about playoffs.”
Erie/Prophetstown last advanced to the postseason in 2002, but it still has some work to do. Before the schools shared a program, Erie never qualified for the playoffs and Prophetstown last made it to the postseason in 1989.
“We can’t be satisfied and we need to continue to move forward,” Milem said. “That’s the big thing we talked about after our fifth win. We want to live in every moment and take every opportunity to play high school football. We enjoy being under the lights. There’s no sense in looking ahead to Week 10 when we have more opportunities now.”
Milem said he had a feeling this could be a special season for the Panthers way back in the offseason.
“I knew it could be a good year when there where a lot of kids on the bus in the summer,” he said. “I drive a bus to pick up the Prophetstown kids, so we can all lift together. We had a full bus for a lot of the summer. The kids spent a lot of time interacting then and during 7-on-7s. Then when we couldn’t have contact with them, the seniors organized events for the football team. It’s pretty special.”
Milem gave a lot of credit to his seniors, saying their leadership has made the difference.
“We’ve had some of these kids since they were sophomores,” he said. “We have three senior captains who start on our offensive line, so that has been a big change in the right direction.
“We saw them coming up and we knew we’d have some players. We got more kids; every year they added to their class size. We have some first-year seniors out, which is great.”
The Panthers don’t make it much of a secret that they’re going to run at their opponents, but they’ve still been finding success. Erie/Prophetstown has scored 12 or more points in each of its games and gone over 40 twice.
“That all starts up front and it’s the leadership again,” Milem said. “We have a read-option scheme, so even we don’t know who is going to get the ball. It’s a tribute to the skill-position players, and they’ve been taking good care of the football.
“Ethan Howard — our starting quarterback — started last year as a sophomore and got a year under his belt. He took some lumps. But now he’s got a lot of knowledge and knows how to run the scheme really well. Plus, we’ve got a great fullback in Zach Inskeep to be the show.”
Now the Erie/Prophetstown players have some new feelings to remember.