CRYSTAL LAKE – Samson Evans. Jeff Jenkins. Jacob Ommen. Joe Perhats. Zach Gulbransen.
Those names, along with others, roll off the tongues of current Prairie Ridge players who were middle schoolers in the stands at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in 2016 and at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium in 2017.
Those Wolves won back-to-back Class 6A state titles, leaving an indelible impression on packs of Junior Wolves who hoped someday that would be them.
“I remember when everyone in my school or my grade was like, ‘I want to be like Samson,’ " Wolves fullback Nathan Greetham said. “We were all scared of Jeff Jenkins because we thought he was a real big dude. They were our heroes. We wanted to be like them one day and be able to do what they were able to do.”
That day is near.
Prairie Ridge (12-1) faces East St. Louis (11-2) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium for the Class 6A state championship.
Wolves linebacker Ryan Koelblinger is trying to become the third brother in his family to win a state championship ring. Nik was a senior on the 2016 team; Kyle was a sophomore on the 2017 team (and also played for the 2019 runner-up Wolves).
“It’s pretty crazy that we’ve all made it there. It’ just surreal,” Ryan Koelblinger said. “They were one of the best teams. It was really cool to watch them win all those. Especially with my brother on that team, I was like, ‘Man, I can do that. We can make it there.’ It brought me some motivation.”
The current seniors were in sixth grade when the Wolves won in 2016, their second state title. They were well into their Junior Wolves’ careers, learning how to run the triple-option and occasionally seeing one of their heroes at a game or practice.
“It’s one thing if a coach, like a dad, is telling us how to run plays,” Greetham said. “When you get to see Samson or [fullback] Jackson Willis show us how to do it, it was kind of like, ‘Wow!’ "
Greetham had no problem selecting a number for high school. He chose Willis’ No. 4 and now assumes the same position Willis played in 2017 and 2018.
Offensive lineman Ethan Goudschaal found inspiration in watching those former teams win on the biggest stage.
“I remember going to the games, and I looked up to them so much,” Goudschaal said. “Because one day, I knew I could be one of those guys. It made me excited. It’s weird that I am now the senior football player that these kids look up to.
“It’s weird feeling that. I don’t look at myself like that, but I know these kids see me like that, so it makes me feel more pride in what I do.”
Evans was the quarterback for three seasons and was Northwest Herald Player of the Year all three of those season. The Wolves were 39-2 when he was their quarterback.
Wolves quarterback Tyler Vasey broke Evan’s school rushing record of 2,211 yards and has since shattered the state season record at 3,780 yards.
“You were like, ‘I want to be like them,’ " Vasey said. “I’ve always loved football, and that was what I wanted to do. But man, what they were doing seemed scary. They’re big guys. You’re small in sixth grade. Hopefully I grow a little bit.”
Vasey embraces now being to younger kids what Evans’ group was to this team.
“I want to be a role model to everybody,” Vasey said. “I have gone to Junior Wolves games. I like to show my face, talk to coaches, see the players. I like to interact with them. I know they look up to me, and I want to make sure that they continue to play football.
“A lot of kids quit before high school and don’t get the entire experience. The best experiences is when you’re an upperclassman and it’s our team now. I want to go out and win and keep the program’s tradition of winning.”
This senior class also was on the sideline and at practices for the 2019 run to the title game. It is something most programs do with younger players during long playoff runs.
“We bring up freshmen to have that experience,” Wolves coach Chris Schremp said. “That was a neat thing. We do a video for our seniors, and they had to name their most memorable PR football moment. And so many of those guys who are seniors said, ‘When we were a freshman, being at state.’
“That hit home to a lot of us as coaches. A lot of those freshman call-ups are at practice, they’re kind of doing some stuff, but are they really soaking it all in? It was so awesome to hear how much they enjoyed that experience and how memorable it was, even though they didn’t play, just being part of it. That’s the whole reason we do bring up those guys, to see what it’s like. Now those guys really know what it’s like and the level they have to compete at.”