WILMINGTON – There aren’t many programs in Illinois that are as synonymous with the IHSA football playoffs as Wilmington.
The Wildcats are in the playoffs for the 27th consecutive season – the playoff-less spring 2021 season notwithstanding – under coach Jeff Reents, an amazing accomplishment in itself.
After Wilmington’s 41-14 win over Mercer County on Friday, Reents and his teams are 23-4 in the opening round of the playoffs. In baseball terms, the Wildcats are like a good starting pitcher. If you want to beat them, you better get them early.
“In a nine-game season, all the games are important,” Reents said. “But those first two or three weeks every year, our staff and kids are trying to figure out where all the pieces fit and how they all fit together. We are trying to get from Point A to Point B, and sometimes that takes a little while.
“The great thing is that our kids really buy into our system and put in the work in the offseason. Also, having a staff of assistants like I have is a big help. [Offensive coordinator] Barry Southall has been with me since I started. Bob Bolser has been with me for a long time too, and Rob Murphy was until he recently retired.
“Having consistency in the staff is a big thing for us.”
Reents also praises the work done by the lower-level coaches at the high school, as well as the thriving youth football program in Wilmington. They teach the double-wing offense, which seems like an anachronism in these spread-it-out days, but they have found the scheme fits the players they have.
“Some of these kids, going all the way back to playing with the Bobcats, have learned the double-wing for around 10 years before we get them on the varsity,” Reents said. “They know it already, so we can tweak it and fine-tune it as we need to.”
The offense is based not only on quick, physical running backs, but also quick, physical offensive linemen. Wilmington, a Class 2A school, doesn’t normally see players the size of a prototypical lineman walking through the halls, so they run a system that works with their personnel.
“It’s kind of funny,” Reents said. “When they start in youth football and the coaches ask who wants to be a wingback, every hand goes up. We give everyone a chance, but there are some of them that are going to have to move to the offensive line. We need our offensive linemen to be quick and athletic.”
“I came in here young. I was only 24 when I got the job. I still had all the stuff I learned from my Morris days, and that’s what I had to go off of. But none of it works unless the coaching staff and kids buy into it and are willing to put in the time.”— Jeff Reents, Wilmington football coach
And, when Wilmington hosts a playoff game, that’s a sight to see.
On home game days, the team enters the field from a patch of woods on the south end of the stadium. Over the years, the entrance has grown from being between two lines of fans to now being between two rows of full-throated Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Then there is a fireworks display over the baseball field on the east side of the stadium.
Needless to say, it’s a show no one wants to miss.
“All that hoopla before the game,” Reents said. “That’s selling the program to the younger kids that are in that line. They see that and want to be a part of it.
“At a school our size, we need every good athlete we have to play all the sports they can, and that includes football. We want our football players playing other sports, too.”
Reents learned the desire for three-sport athletes while being one himself at Morris, playing his football under another coaching legend, Dan Darlington.
“I came in here young,” Reents said. “I was only 24 when I got the job. I still had all the stuff I learned from my Morris days, and that’s what I had to go off of. But none of it works unless the coaching staff and kids buy into it and are willing to put in the time.”
Although the Wildcats use a run-centered offense, they have to prepare their defense for the spread offenses that are popular in many other programs. Once again, it’s all about time.
“We do a lot of work on the spread during the summer,” Reents said. “That’s what we really use the 7-on-7s for. Yes, we can work on our passing game, but we really want our guys to see as many spreads as they can in the summer, because we don’t do it in practice.
“A lot of the credit goes to Chad Farrell, our defensive backs coach. He works with the kids to get them in the right positions and running the right schemes. By the time this time of year comes around, the offense has seen pretty much every defense that they can see, so I can go over and work a little more with the defense.”
Reents has a simple explanation for his program’s continued success.
“The secret is the work the kids put in,” he said, “simple as that. They buy into what we are teaching, and they work hard at it. And the community really gets behind us and supports us.
“I am very thankful for that as well.”