One of the biggest decisions Chuck Milem had to make this past season as Erie-Prophetstown football coach was second-guessed by a 5-foot-4, 120-pound kicker.
The Panthers and Morrison Mustangs were tied 28-28 with 23 seconds remaining in a game played Sept. 21 in Erie. Erie-Prophetstown had just scored a touchdown.
Milem had to decide whether to put the ball in the sure hands of junior quarterback Ethan Howard, or perhaps his battering ram of a fullback, senior Zach Inskeep, for a 2-point conversion try. There was also the safer option, at least by conventional football wisdom, of simply kicking the extra point.
Milem needed a moment to think about it.
"I called a timeout and our kicker [Brandon McCullough] said, 'You just iced your own kicker?' in the huddle," Milem said with a wry smile. "I said, 'Well, I haven't decided if I'm going to kick it or not.' McCullough, he did a lot of good things for us and he ended up being an all-conference player, but we just didn't have a ton of faith yet in his kicking ability. We decided to go with [the kick], and we ended up winning the game."
Milem made a lot of correct calls in the Panthers' 5-5 season that concluded with the program's first playoff appearance since 2002. It's not only for that, but a painstaking process leading up to that point, that Milem is the Sauk Valley Media's football coach of the year for the 2012 season.
Erie and Prophetstown have been many things, but a football hotbed isn't one of them. Since the IHSA football playoffs began in 1974 until the two teams formed a co-op team in 2001, the Cardinals and Prophets combined for five postseason appearances. All of them were from Prophetstown in the 1980s.
The Erie-Prophetstown Panthers qualified for the playoffs in 2002, when they finished 6-4, but since then had fallen on hard times. They went a combined 12-33 from 2003-07, and one of those victories was by forfeit against Big Rivers bottom-feeder River Valley.
Enter Milem, 31, a 2000 Erie graduate who came back to teach and coach at his alma mater in 2008 after a 3-year run doing the same thing at Sherrard. He was an assistant under Pat Elder for one season, then Jason Kirby for two more, and counts those two head coaches as his two mentors in the coaching business.
What Milem found at E-P was a mess, and he set about to fix it the best way he knew how. He saw two areas that needed to be immediately corrected.
First, he needed to bridge the 12-mile gap that separated Erie and Prophetstown by getting more and more people on the same page when it came to football.
For the first 2 years Milem was on the job, Prophetstown had its own junior tackle football program and Erie had its own. They were independent of each other, though they were the feeder program for the E-P Panthers. Coaches had their own agendas in coaching philosophies.
That changed in 2010. After a 2-year battle that included making pitches at multiple school board meetings, Milem brought the youth tackle football program together under one umbrella – his. Coaches were teaching things that Milem wanted to be taught.
"Other coaches have tried, but it was met with resistance," Milem said of bringing the youth programs together. "People thought everyone would not get a chance to play, when you want kids at that younger level to get in there. They thought there would be issues with travel, but basically I said all those things are solvable. All we had to do was replicate what we do at the high school."
The next thing Milem set about to improve was participation, be it in in-season or out-of-season activities.
His first Panther team in 2008 had 14 upperclassmen, and even they weren't committed the way they needed to be.
"I had maybe eight kids in the weightroom," Milem said, "and I couldn't even keep them in there consistently."
Prophetstown football players were training at a recreation center in town, while Erie gridders lifted in the weightroom at school. To build unity, as well as muscles, Milem took to the road – literally.
"I drive a bus all summer," Milem said. "I go get Prophetstown kids and bring them to Erie, and then we do 7-on-7s where I get Erie kids and go to Prophetstown. We had to create more opportunities where we were together."
A pair of seniors from both communities, Cody Beyer of Erie and Inskeep of Prophetstown, emerged as ringleaders. They were voted team captains as juniors and the driving forces from a players' standpoint toward preparing for the 2012 season.
Their message got through. Milem estimated he had 40-to-50 players at each summer weightlifting session.
"We were trying to find space and finding different things for them to do," Milem said. "It's just been a dramatic change there. We could see this coming with the hard work that these kids were putting in."
Owen McConnell, a junior at Erie, summed up the cooperation between all players involved.
"Us and Prophetstown, we're like brothers once football season starts," McConnell said.
Milem's teams went 1-8, 3-6, 3-6 and 1-8 in his first 4 years at Erie-Prophetstown, but there were signs things could be different in 2012. He had 30 upperclassmen on the varsity roster, more than double what he had at the beginning of his E-P tenure.
A trio of seniors (Rhett Stover, Nate Andreas and Zack Maloney) played football for the first time in high school, another sign the program was headed in the right direction. Each were major contributors.
"There were kids walking around this school in the hallways and kids walking around Prophetstown in the hallways that just weren't out," Milem said. "It was a really a matter of recruiting within our own school systems because the kids were there."
With participation increasing and preparation improving, it's natural success would follow. Each game seemingly had its own tale of things finally breaking the Panthers' way.
In the season-opening 25-22 win over Fulton, E-P trailed late before a long kickoff return by Chris Bauer was the difference.
"We had our 2-minute offense ready to go," Milem said. "I was sitting with our quarterback, Ethan Howard, talking about what we were going to do, and then all of a sudden we both stopped talking and watched him go."
A Week 2 loss to Amboy provided a silver lining. Inskeep rushed for 206 yards and gave the team a go-to option it could ride the rest of the season.
"That kind of changed us a little bit on what we could rely on offensively," Milem said. "We were still kind of finding our identity."
In Week 3 against Riverdale, with Howard sidelined with an ankle injury, the team rallied around freshman quarterback Jordan Chandler. He was thrown to the wolves in the second half against Amboy, but produced 90 yards rushing in a 14-7 decision against the Rams.
"He was prepared for the Riverdale game, which allowed him to have some success," Milem said of Chandler.
E-P's lone bad loss, for lack of a better term, in 2012 was against Bureau Valley in Week 4. The Storm finished 4-5, but rose up to hand the Panthers a 28-12 beatdown.
"[BV quarterback Tyler] Barnas scrambled all over the place the whole game and we just couldn't catch him," Milem said.
Erie-Prophetstown's signature win came in Week 5 against Morrison. With a homecoming crowd looking on at Hein Field in Erie, the Panthers rallied from a 28-8 third-quarter deficit to win 29-28 against a program that had won two of the previous three Class 2A state titles.
"They scored on our turnover in the third quarter," Milem said, "and that's usually when our kids would have put their heads in the ground and said, 'Alright, here we go again.' It was completely different."
Wins against Hall and Kewanee followed by a combined score of 97-26, then, in Week 8, the Panthers found themselves in another tussle, this time with league heavyweight Newman. Though E-P lost 35-20, it played some of its best football of the season.
The Comets' defense had barely been dented at that point all season, but the Panthers put together two long scoring drives to forge a 14-14 halftime tie.
"That was huge for our kids," Milem said. "They were so confident in what we were doing at that time. Our halfbacks were even pointing things out and telling our line things. There was so much communication. I felt like we were playing at our highest level offensively at that point of the season."
Erie-Prophetstown was beat up physically after the Newman game, and Milem noted that contributed to his squad's 28-20 defeat in the regular-season finale against against a stout St. Bede club. Still, the Panthers were a touchdown and 2-point conversion away from tying the game until a late fumble sealed defeat.
When the playoffs were announced the next day, Erie-Prophetstown players and coaches gathered at the high school to learn their fate. As it turned out, it was another encounter with Newman.
Newman won the game 21-6 on its way to the Class 3A semifinals, but for Erie-Prophetstown, the needle is clearly looking up when it comes to football. Milem noted members of the local police force stop by his house to talk football, and when he goes to the town barbershop for a haircut, patrons want to know about the Panthers.
"It's just fun to see people excited again about football in town," Milem said.
Looking ahead, Milem will have a quarterback, Howard, who will be entering his third year as a starter, as well as a host of other key pieces back from this year's squad. He noted the Panthers will have to raise their game even more, with the addition of Sherrard, Orion, Rockridge and Princeton to the conference next season.
"It's just another level to things," Milem said, "where we have to continue to raise our level."
Tod McCullough, a teacher at Erie for 19 years and wrestling coach the past 16, has been impressed with the football program's turnaround under Milem.
"Chuck's got the kids motivated and inspired to be in the weightroom," McCullough said, "and working for a common goal. It's nice to see. I remember Chuck as a student here at Erie High School. He was well-driven with a bunch of his classmates, and it's nice to see that resurgence coming back into our school system."
High school: Erie, class of 2000
College: Augustana, class of 2005
Family: Wife, Lindsey; children, Max, 4, Lia, 1
FYI: Athletic director, teacher and football coach at Erie High School. ... Guided Panthers to 5-5 record and first playoff berth since 2002. ...