For high school football players on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, the long-delayed 2021 football season came with no postseason.
For players right on the banks of the Mississippi, such as at Fulton, there was a view of a postseason just over the river in Iowa, where Camanche reached the Class 2A semifinal and North Scott was the Class 3A state champion.
“Having the season, we were still happy we were able to compete and have fun,” Fulton quarterback Connor Barnett said. “I know guys in Camanche and Clinton, and I was kind of envious of them because we didn’t have that.”
A state run wasn’t on the table for the Steamers, either, in basketball where they went 12-2, won a late-season battle of unbeatens against East Dubuque, and ended the season ranked No. 8 in the final Class 1A AP poll.
Then it was much the same in football, where for four weeks the Steamers outscored teams 199-26 before running into Class 3A power Princeton in the finale.
One key to both was Barnett, a 20-point-per-game scorer for Fulton basketball who threw for an area-leading 904 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns in football.
Following that stellar senior spring on the football field, Barnett is the Sauk Valley Media Player of the Year.
In helping Fulton race to a 4-1 finish in its final year in the Three Rivers before moving to the NUIC, Barnett completed 57 of 83 passes (68.7%).
“He’s, first and foremost, a great kid,” Fulton coach Patrick Lower said. “He’s a really good student. He does everything the right way, and then on top of that he’s a really good athlete. It doesn’t matter what sport he’s playing, he’s one of the best.”
Barnett’s first game as Fulton’s starting quarterback came in Week 1 of the 2019 season against Princeton. It did not go well, with Princeton racing out to a 31-0 halftime lead in a 45-7 win. He completed seven passes for 45 yards and was intercepted twice.
His final high school game came against Princeton as well. It was another Steamers loss, but this time to a Tigers team who very well could have made a long postseason run in Class 3A had there been playoffs. Barnett hit Jacob Jones for a 70-yard touchdown early to put the Steamers ahead, and the Steamers stayed in front most of the way until a late Tigers rally resulted in a 49-38 win.
“It came full circle after 2 1/2 years of preparing and playing football,” Lower said. “He did a fantastic job. The growth he was able to make, the mistakes he would make as a junior quarterback, he wasn’t making those. He did a great job of maturing as a player.”
Barnett’s introduction to football came in fourth grade.
“All my friends, they knew I was kind of athletic and they wanted me to go out for football,” he said. “So I decided to go out and never turned back. It was a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun with my friends.”
Many of those friends were there with him the whole way, through middle school and into high school, through four years that saw the Class of ’21 grow into the veteran leaders of the program.
One of those guys who got an early glimpse was Fulton senior defensive lineman Jakob North.
“He’s always been an athlete, so we knew that,” North said. “We knew he had a pretty good arm, but that was fifth grade, so it wasn’t much to go off of.”
For Barnett’s first two years in high school, the Steamers had a veteran quarterback in Max Lemke, who Barnett could watch and take notes on how to play the position.
“Seeing him out there, he was a good leader as well,” Barnett said. “He was really good in the classroom, and people really looked up to him. I took that and I wanted to shape myself around him.”
For Barnett, leadership became an important part of the job. Lower saw a player who prided himself in being the first one on the field for practice, making sure he had studied up on the gameplan, something which served as an example for younger players.
“You come in here at 6:30 in the morning and he’s either in the weight room or shooting baskets in the gym,” Lower said. “Before practice he’s throwing the football, getting his arm loose.”
With that preparation, Lower was able to build an offense around Barnett’s strengths as a pocket passer and use Barnett’s ability to get prepared.
“Coach had a really good job of having each gameplan, we have a first-20 [plays] and we really practice those hard,” Barnett said. “I felt we were really prepared each and every game those first 20 plays, and it really showed during games, for sure.”
His leadership ability really came in handy during the spring season. Over the summer of 2020, it initially looked like there would be a fall season, but the plug was pulled on that soon after. There was no certainty there would be a season, even less that a team would be able to make it through a season without having any games wiped out. Through it all, Barnett made sure his team would be ready when the season finally did kick off.
“It was hard just not knowing if we were going to have a season,” Barnett said. “Me, [Ethan] Rash, Kyler [Pessman], some of the others, we were just trying to keep the team together. We had a group chat. We were trying to keep them working out. We would come onto the field sometimes to throw the ball around.”
For Fulton, a trip to the playoffs is often at the end of a nine-game regular season. That wasn’t going to be the case. A run of going undefeated was going to be a tough order with Princeton looming at the end of the season. But the Steamers still kept their focus by focusing on the goals they could reach.
“We were trying to just win the day,” Barnett said. “Win the day at practice, and then on top of that win the week. Since we didn’t have the playoffs, we had different goals of going undefeated and winning conference. We did a pretty good job of winning the day, winning each week, it’s just that we fell short the last week.”
Other sports: Baseball, basketball, golf
Parents: Andrea, Chris
College plans: Carl Sandburg to play basketball, study science