Dixon coach Dave Smith has believed for some time now that his Dukes are taking big strides in the right direction.
Last week, he saw proof to back up those beliefs.
Trailing against LaSalle-Peru in the fourth quarter last Friday night, the Dukes (2-4, 1-1 NIB-12 West) saw a big pass play called back because of a holding penalty. In the past, that might have been cause for some heads to droop and hopes to be dashed.
But not this time, and not this team. Instead, Dixon drove the field and scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 13-10 victory, the program's first conference victory over somebody not named Streator since 2006.
"The kids believed in themselves and each other, and they didn't wilt under pressure," Smith said. "You could tell after that penalty that we were kind of thinking, 'Is that it? Is that where it ends?' But the kids fought back, overcame the adversity, and that's a huge difference-maker in building a program."
It's also a step toward the short-term goals, which is winning more than one conference contest in a season for the first time since, again, 2006 … which is also, incidentally, the last time Dixon went to the playoffs.
Yes, there's playoff buzz in the air at A.C. Bowers Field these days. If the Dukes win out, they'll be playoff eligible at 5-4.
"It's been awhile, but we're all talking playoffs," senior offensive lineman Logan Fassler said. "We know we have to win the rest of our games, but right now, we're happy and confident and feeling good about what's in front of us."
For his part, Smith isn't bringing up the "P" word. But he has addressed it briefly with his team, hoping that it helps with the Dukes' focus on the short term and doesn't get them looking ahead.
"I just told the kids that I wanted them to have the chance to get a win in Week 9 and then get back together that next night for the playoff pairings show," Smith said. "I'd love for these guys to just have that opportunity to have that feeling.
"But the kids understand what's at stake every game the next few weeks, and they're all focused and ready to go in the present. We'll worry about the future when we get there."
The present, for now, involves an Ottawa team that has struggled to score points this season. The Pirates (1-5, 0-2) have scored 16 points or fewer in four of their six games, and are averaging 13.3 points per game while allowing 33.3.
But the Dukes aren't even considering Ottawa's record or previous results. They know what the Pirates bring to the table, and there's no chance of the Dixon players underestimating Friday's Senior Night opponent.
"They're going to be physical and aggressive, try to get something established early," senior Dane Schielein said, "and our defense needs to be ready to counter what they're doing. We all know we need to win for a chance at the playoffs, so we have to come out and get after it, focus on what we're doing and execute."
Smith said the key will be to get the defense "cranked up" and playing like it did in last week's win. He was pleased with the defensive effort against the Cavaliers, and also was happy to see the offense "do what it had to do" to get the team a win.
If the special teams can play a full game like it did in the second half, and the Dukes continue to cut down on turnovers and penalties, Smith is excited about what this team can achieve.
"In Weeks 2 and 5, we didn't show up, but that should be out of our system at this point," Smith said. "Ottawa is going to come out and take it to us, give us their best shot and then ask us what we've got. If we respond like we did last week, we should be fine; if we respond like we did against Geneseo, it could be a long night.
"I'm interested – and optimistic – to see which one it's going to be."
• The last time the Dukes won back-to-back conference games was in Weeks 5 & 6 of 2006, when they beat LaSalle-Peru and Streator. Coincidentally, Dixon also defeated Ottawa in Week 8, en route to a trip to the third round of the Class 5A playoffs – the deepest playoff run in school history.
Ottawa (1-5, 0-2 NIB-12 West) at Dixon (2-4, 1-1)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: A.C. Bowers Field
Radio: 1460 AM
Twitter: Ty Reynolds (@STyReynolds)