If there's one person who understands what it takes to build a successful high school football program in the Sauk Valley, it's Mike Papoccia.
For the last 34 years he's been at the helm of the Newman Comets. In that time, he has 278 wins, 23 playoffs appearances and four state titles.
Not only can he guide players, but he also can tell when opponents are going in the right direction. One thing he knows is that Erie-Prophetstown (5-1) is headed in the right direction.
He'll get a front row seat to that improvement on Friday night, as the Comets head to Wayne Hein Field in Erie in a battle between the two teams leading the Three Rivers North.
"It's Week 7, and by the time you reach Week 7, you expect to be playing in big games," Papoccia said. "Every game is a big game. This will be a big game."
While the Comets (5-1) have been a dominant force in the Sauk Valley for years, the Panthers have been an afterthought for much of the last decade.
It wasn't until last year – behind workhorse fullback Zach Inskeep – that the Panthers competed well in the conference and qualified for the playoffs.
The only caveat to that season – waiting in the first round of the playoffs was the Newman Comets.
"We saw last year that they had a number of kids that would be returning," Papoccia said. "The big thing was who would they have to play at fullback. They've obviously been able to do that.
"It's all about getting the kids to believe. They've done that now. They run that option, and that's a good offense to run. The kids believe in it, and they have the personnel to make it work."
The first option in the attack is fullback Nick Williams. All he's done is rush for 1,300 yards on 139 carries and 19 TDs.
But, as Papoccia pointed out, the Panthers can hit with three other weapons.
Quarterback Ethan Howard has rushed for 542 yards and speedy running back Jordan Chandler has 360 yards. Papoccia also believes Chris Bauer (225 yards) is a threat.
"You can't forget about the passing game," Papoccia said. "They haven't shown it this year because they haven't had to. We saw them twice last year, and they showed that they could pass during those games. You have to expect that they are going to try and throw the ball."
Like Erie-Prophetstown, Newman makes its hay on the ground using a plethora of options. The most-used back has been Jake Snow with 70 carries and 568 yards.
The winner of the game will be in the driver's seat for the Three Rivers North crown. Both teams are already playoff eligible.
With Newman likely dropping to Class 2A this year, the Panthers won't likely have to see the Comets again in 2013.