CRYSTAL LAKE – The 2011 season changed everything at Prairie Ridge.
The Wolves had proved themselves as a successful program since shortly after the school opened in the fall of 1997, but after 2011 things were different.
That was the Wolves’ third consecutive trip to the Class 6A playoffs semifinals. This time they took out Batavia 33-22 in a thrilling semifinal and then defeated Peoria Richwoods 35-14 for the championship.
Nick Margiotta, a Prairie Ridge assistant coach for the past five seasons, was tight end and punter on the 2011 team. He played at Winona State, then returned to the area and teaches.
“That set the standard that this is a program that can reach this level,” Margiotta said. “Now we’ve seen our potential and we need to do this every single year. Setting the bar that high is fun, and at the same time, the guys who come after us have to live up to that.
“There’s a tradition of success. It’s something we do not take for granted, but it’s almost an expectation at this point, getting deep into the playoffs. If we don’t, it’s a disappointment for us.”
Since that season, the Wolves have been back to the semifinals five more times and won four of those games. The latest semifinal triumph came Saturday when kicker Brogan Amherdt booted a 29-yard field goal with 6.7 seconds to go to beat St. Ignatius 21-19.
The Wolves (12-1) will meet East St. Louis (11-2) for the Class 6A state championship at 1 p.m. Saturday at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp was an assistant coach when the program started under Dave Whitson and became head coach in 2002. He knows that level of success breeds extremely lofty aspirations.
“It makes you work harder because those things are expected,” Schremp said. “It’s almost like if you don’t make state, well, ‘What happened?’ And some years you don’t feel like you have a team that can make state, but the school and the people in the community still expect it. It’s a positive thing, and it can be a negative thing. We try to make it a positive.”
After winning back-to-back state titles in 2016 and 2017, the 2018 Wolves had to replace most of their starters. They were knocked out in the second round by a talented Chicago Phillips 24-19.
“We expect excellence,” defensive coordinator Andy Petersen said. “It was a disappointment in 2018 when we lost in the second round. It fueled our ‘19 run [back to the title game], but it was a big disappointment. That team was not nearly as good as the before (2017) or the after (2019). But this is what we expect.”
In Prairie Ridge’s 25 years, it has missed the playoffs only five times: 1997, 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2012. It was remarkable for a program to reach the playoffs in its third year. Whitson took the Wolves to the quarterfinals in their fifth season.
Schremp, who is 178-62 (a .742 winning percentage) in 21 seasons, took over, and the Wolves kept on becoming stronger. In 2007, they made the quarterfinals again. In 2009, they started the string of three straight semifinal appearances.
They have been to the playoffs every season since 2013 and have missed the quarterfinals only twice in that stretch (2014 and 2018).
Cary-Grove’s players and coaches always said the 2004 season, in which the Trojans made the Class 7A state title game and lost to Libertyville 13-3 invigorated their program like nothing else could.
C-G has three 6A state championships since 2009. Either C-G or Prairie Ridge has played in every 6A title game since 2016.
The 2011 Prairie Ridge team did the same thing.
“It’s motivation in the weight room. It’s motivation when they’re doing something that’s outside of sports,” Margiotta said. “That’s what it was for me. My junior year we lost to Boylan (14-7) in the semifinals. The year before we lost to Cary in the semifinals. It really drives your decisions in your every-day life outside of football. During football, it motivates you: ‘Hey, we can get there. We’ve seen it and we are in control of our own destiny.’ "
It can change the way coaches instruct their players too.
“There are no practices or film study sessions that are just fun,” Petersen said. “It’s pretty intense in there. That’s how we run our program.
“Some people are like, ‘They’re in the state championship again.’ This is pretty remarkable, what Cary’s done, what we’ve done. It’s not commonplace. You don’t luck into it. It’s not something we take for granted either.”
Knowing what it takes and wanting to keep the highly successful tradition going drives players and coaches through the offseason.
“We told the kids in January, you’re expected to compete in the playoffs, and that gets done in the weight room,” Schremp said. “That’s where we start. Are we lifting like a state champion would lift? That’s how we approach everything. That’s how we approach summer practices.
“We’re not doing anything to be average teams. We’re doing everything to be championship teams. The kids buy into that.”