Before Lena-Winslow, Forreston and Dakota started trading state titles every year, John O’Boyle built Stockton into the first great NUIC power, losing only 21 games in 18 seasons between 1968 and 1985.

And before Hononegah became an annual NIC-10 power, the Indians ruled the SHARK Conference, named after founding members South Beloit, Harlem, Aquin, Rockton Hononegah and Kirkland Hiawatha.

And in 1979 — three years before Hononegah joined the NIC-10, when its only loss was 15-12 in the final two minutes to undefeated Class 5A state champion Guilford — the two met in the ultimate local small-school, large-school showdown, a 28-22 triple-overtime Stockton victory that ranks as our No. 9 greatest game in area football history.

Stockton came in 55-4 over four years, with two of those losses in the Class 2A state title game. The Blackhawks were undefeated and ranked No. 1 heading into that Wednesday first-round Class 2A playoff game. Hononegah, 3 ½ times larger than Stockton (330) with an enrollment of 1,187, dropped from 3A down to 2A under an IHSA playoff formula at the time that considered the average size of your conference opponents. The Indians would be 4A or larger every season since and are now 7A to Stockton’s 1A.

Hononegah came in unranked at 7-2, but that may have been the Indians’ best chance to ever win it all. Their coach certainly thought so.

“I feel we could have won state,” coach Bob Maloney said after the game. “It doesn’t matter if you are ranked or not.”

The Blackhawks were defending state champs, but they were not as talented as the teams that had reached the state title game three of the previous four years.

“They definitely overachieved,” said Brad Fox, who was in junior high at the time but grew up to be a long-time O’Boyle assistant who succeeded him and led the Blackhawks to a state runner-up finish in 2004. “We lost a lot of seniors off that state championship team but the kids who came in the following year stepped up to it. That game against Hononegah exemplified the heart and desire of that team.”

“Stockton is a proud town, a football town, and they were coming to our place,” said Jeff Dower, who scored the winning touchdown. “A lot of teammates were concerned about the sheer size of Hononegah’s school, but we felt we had a good chance.”

Still, the Blackhawks knew this was going to be no ordinary first-round game. So they came out with a trick up their sleeve. Dower, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards that year, took the opening kickoff but handed off to 5-foot-8, 155-pound fullback Greg Frank on a reverse. Frank made it all the way to the Hononegah 36. Six plays later, Chad Eshleman threw a 2-yard TD pass to Barry Brandt and Dower added a 2-point conversion.

Stockton then methodically drove 61 yards on 13 plays on its next drive, with Frank scoring from a yard out to bump its lead to 16-0. But the Blackhawks never scored again until overtime. Hononegah tied it at 16 only four seconds into the fourth quarter. Stockton missed a 30-yard field goal with 14 seconds left that could have won it.

Stockton won it in the third overtime when Dower improvised and squeaked into the right corner of the end zone on fourth-and-2.

“It was a double lead, but the hole was plugged up,” Dower said after the game. “I took off for the outside, and fortunately, took it in. The play was supposed to go inside, but I broke it outside, taking a chance.”

Defensive lineman Bob Werkheiser set up Dower’s heroics by stopping Hononegah’s final drive with an interception. An interception that almost ended the game then and there.

“Stockton’s field then was known for having quite an incline,” said Dan O’Boyle, coach John O’Boyle’s son. “At the coin flip, teams would ask, ‘Do you want to go uphill or downhill? Bob Werkheiser intercepts a pass, but he is running uphill. He got 80 yards toward a winning touchdown, but he got chased down.”

Stockton’s great win turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Back then, teams played three games in eight days, finishing the season on a Friday, then playing the first round of the playoffs on Wednesday and the second round on Saturday. Stockton, which ran 50 times for 301 yards and defended a punishing Hononegah ground game that produced 220 yards on 66 carries, was still hurting when it played No. 7 Amboy three days later. The Clippers were making their first-ever playoff appearance and featured option quarterback Rick Considine, who would go on to make Northern Illinois University’s football Hall of Fame and father three of Byron’s greatest athletes in Sean, Ryan and Megan Considine.

Stockton would lose 38-16 to Amboy, which went on to take second in the state.

“It was just brutal to play three games in eight days,” Dan O’Boyle said.

“We were beat up pretty good and had very little prep time,” Dower said. “It’s almost hard to believe they even did that back then.”

Just as it’s almost hard to believe little Stockton once beat perennial large-school power Hononegah in the playoffs.

“People in Stockton still talk about that,” Dan O’Boyle said. “They talk about that as much as, ‘That guy was on a state championship team.’ Well, that guy was on a team that beat Hononegah in three overtimes.”

Matt Trowbridge: 815-987-1383; mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge