It wasn't raining when practice began at Roscoe Eades Stadium, but it felt like the Sterling football team was in a ferocious storm.
The Golden Warriors are facing the cold reality that, without winning their last two games, they would miss the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years.
They're prepping for a Dixon team whose sole goal right now is to leave the Northern Illinois Big 12 West with one prize: a win over its bitter rival to the west.
“I don’t want to be a jerk and feel good about eliminating their playoff chances,” Dixon quarterback JD Gieson said. “But as a player who attends Dixon High School, I’d feel very good and very satisfied being a member of the team that stopped them from going to the playoffs.”
Yikes. And then there's the Sterling golf team, fresh off earning a state tournament berth, chirping its fellow fall sportsters.
"[Trevor] Sisson, [Kyle] Sinn, [Zach] Rehmert…all them," said Kirchhoff, who takes a publications class with Sterling's golfers. "Making state, though…they have a little room to talk."
Sinn, a senior in his third season playing golf, played football for the 9 years prior.
"I still miss football sometimes," he said. "I still like talking football with them. At some points you miss it, but I'd never trade what I'm doing now.
"The ribbing isn't anything that's not in good-nature. I like to think at some point, it gives them some motivation."
While he wouldn't speak to any of the noise surrounding his team, Sterling (3-4, 1-2 Northern Illinois Big 12 West) coach Jon Schlemmer was happy to address the sense of urgency his team must practice and play with the next 10 days in order to earn a spot in the second season.
"Our kids don't have to worry about the next 6 years, or 10 years or 50 years," the second-year Sterling coach said. "They're focused on Friday night, going out and playing to the best of their ability. For the seniors, it's the last guaranteed time to be out here. They've gotta go out and play their best games of the year."
Gieson is one of many talented juniors on the Dixon (2-5, 1-2) roster who – while they lament being playoff ineligible – are building toward their senior season, which will be spent as members of the Big Northern West.
“I won’t ever be playing them again,” Gieson said. “Even in the playoffs, they’re 5A and we’re 4A, so we likely wouldn’t even see them. We always think about during the offseason: Conference, conference, conference. Even more, we’re thinking Sterling, Sterling, Sterling."
The Warriors won last year's tussle 38-0 at A.C. Bowers Field. Running back Draque Penaflor-Heier scorched the chilled surface to the tune of 132 yards and two scores on 10 carries.
This year, Gieson is looking forward to putting the ball in his many weapons' hands on the fast track.
Schlemmer is aware of the threat that's posed by burners like Matt Coffey and Ryan Webb, as well as punishing runners like Quinton Douglas and Cody Mighell.
"They're athletic…really, really athletic," he said. "If you don't contain them on the outside, in my opinion, they're as athletic as anybody we're going to see. They do some nice things, but like us, sometimes they turn the ball over more than they'd like to."
Turnovers have plagued the Warriors the last 2 weeks – nine of them to be exact.
Schlemmer said players like Kirchhoff – whose primary job to this point has been at split end on offense – will be relied upon to defend the edges and try to force Dixon into miscues.
Gieson had high praise for Sterling's quarterback, Bryant Lilly. He wonders when his program lost Sterling's respect.
“It’s kind of a slap in the face to hear people in Sterling say Dixon’s not even their rival anymore, that Geneseo’s their rival,” Gieson said. "Growing up, it was built into us, this rivalry, that we had to beat Sterling."
"We know them very well," Kirchhoff said. "This is our last chance. It's our last chance to show Sterling's better. We always tell ourselves that, but now we've got to prove it."