Chuck Milem remembers it vividly.
“It” being a meeting he had with this year’s Erie-Prophets-town seniors at Wayne Hein Field when they were eighth-graders. The schools’ junior high teams do not co-op.
“They were playing against each other,” Milem said shortly after his team’s 24-14 Class 3A second-round playoff loss to Stillman Valley on Saturday. “I came out and brought them all together. I told them that we had a lot of talent, and when we put it together, it was going to be a lot of fun. I can remember that conversation like it was yesterday.”
In his sixth season, Milem’s first four saw little success. EP went 1-8 in 2008, 3-6 in both 2009 and 2010, and 1-8 again in 2011.
Then, a breakthrough. The Panthers had a 5-4 regular season in 2012, earning the program’s first playoff berth in a decade.
This year was even better. An eight-win season, their best since becoming a co-op in 2001, and the program’s first playoff win since Prophetstown’s last in 1988.
“We’ve made history as a program. It feels great knowing that we’ve gone this far,” said senior fullback Nick Williams, who rushed for 135 yards Saturday to finish the season with a whopping 2,094. “I don’t think anybody expected us to make it this far. We just showed what we were capable of.”
“My class was always good at football, and the class above me was good,” senior halfback Chris Bauer said. “I thought we had the potential to do this. We just had to do the work in the offseason, lift weights in the morning, and practice hard every day.”
Though jumping from one win to five and then to eight in 3 short years seems quick, Milem wishes things would have come together even faster.
“This is my sixth year,” he said. “In my fifth year, we got in the playoffs, and here we are today. It might look fast now, but it was long for me those first few years.”