Freeport barely had 30 players on its 2003 football team.
“But we let each other know there is 11 of us on the field at a time going against 11,” running back/linebacker Robert McShane said. “We weren’t going against 70 people; it’s just 11 on 11 and we were going to be the best 11 on the field.”
They were. They may have been the best Pretzels team ever. This was the third year of a four-year streak in which Freeport went undefeated in the conference, winning a then-record 32 consecutive NIC-9 games. And the 2003 team outscored its foes by 277 points, while the other three did so by an average of 199. And the greatest game of that year, a 13-7 double-overtime victory at Boylan for the conference title when both teams were 8-0 going into the season finale, was picked as the third-greatest football game in Freeport-area history.
“We had a couple of groups that were talented, but not overly talented,” then-coach Cal Cummins said. “The thing about that stretch was we always had guys who rose to the occasion, guys you didn’t expect. When you do those things consistently, good things happen.”
This also may have been Freeport’s greatest defense. The Pretzels gave up only 89 points in 11 games, exactly half as many as Boylan’s No. 2 defense.
And they never faced a bigger challenge than on this rainy night, helping Freeport win a game where it had zero first downs in the first half.
“We scouted each other so much,” Cummins said. “Both teams were so familiar with each other it was hard to get anything past anybody that they hadn’t seen.”
Boylan, loaded with five Division I recruits, had an explosive running game. Quinten Ponius (Eastern Illinois) and Joe Coniglio (Miami of Ohio) both ran for over 120 yards in that game.
But they struggled to get into the end zone against a Freeport defense that held eight of its first 10 opponents to 7 points or fewer. Kyle Neels dragged Ponius down by his shoulder pads on fourth-and-2 at the 1 and Adam Thurman, an under-sized linebacker, somehow met the bullish Coniglio — who played defensive end in college — chest-to-chest and stopped him cold on fourth down from the 1.
“Adam was not big in stature, but he always played hard,” Cummins said. “It’s those kind of plays that help you win those close games.”
“I blitzed and stunted a lot,” said Terry Werntz, Freeport’s defensive coordinator at the time. “Coniglio ran right into a stunt. My linebacker was virtually untouched. He was probably half the size of Coniglio, but he shot right through to where they were running and stood him right up. He’s a fireman today, if that tells you anything about the kid.”
It told Boylan that the Titans couldn’t keep playing Freeport the same way. The next year, Freeport would extend its conference winning streak to 32 games, but two years after that Boylan would begin its mammoth 75-game streak. And one of the reasons Boylan won so many in a row is the Titans learned how to power through in short-yardage situations.
“Freeport forced us to reinvent our goal-line package after that,” then-Boylan coach Dan Appino said. “They did a great job blitzing the various gaps. We were trying to space them up front, but they found gaps and got in before we could get there.”
Freeport’s great defense kept the Pretzels tied 0-0 at halftime despite gaining only 22 yards of total offense. Dee Leiser put Freeport in front 7-0 with a 5-yard run in the third quarter before Coniglio’s 1-yard run tied it in the fourth. Boylan looked like it would win when it reached the Freeport 15 in the waning seconds, but the Pretzels pushed Boylan all the way back to the 40. Then, on the final play of regulation, Ponius broke loose. He made it to the 10 before getting stopped by Freeport quarterback/safety Kyle Colborn..
“It looked like he was going to score, but Kyle ran the kid down,” Werntz said. “I was losing my breath.”
It looked even worse in the first overtime. Freeport had fumbled away its chance. Now that the Titans had the ball, Boylan students left the stands, crowded the edge of the sidelines and prepared to rush the field in celebration.
“It felt like it was 20,000 people,” Boylan defensive back Rob Lotzer said. “You would think with our horses up front, we could punch it in, but Freeport was always really good up front at the line of scrimmage.”
Boylan reached the 3 before getting stopped on third down. Still, the Titans had a chance to win with a short field goal.
“All of our guys were on their knees with their hands folded,” McShane said, “praying to God: ‘Bless us out of this. If you can do a miracle for us, do Your will.’ Fortunately, we were able to make a play.”
Freeport blocked the field goal.
In the second overtime, Boylan fumbled on third-and-16 and Leiser, who lost two fumbles earlier, scored on a 10-yard run on Freeport’s first play for the win despite being outgained 300 yards in total offense to 99.
That made Freeport the first team in conference history to go undefeated three years in a row. It was also the game in which the Pretzels broke Boylan’s then-record 23-game league win streak.
But Boylan got a measure of revenge by winning at Freeport 35-19 in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs two weeks later before losing to eventual state champ Mundelein Carmel 42-14 in the quarterfinals.
“The way the brackets were set up seemed a little unfair,” McShane said. “We wanted to play Boylan again, don’t get me wrong, but we would have liked to have seen them later.”
“After pulling our heads out of the mud,” Boylan’s Appino said, “we beat them in the playoffs two weeks later, but that was a painful, painful loss.”
And despite the playoff loss, that Week 9 win at Boylan in 2003 remains one of Freeport’s greatest triumphs.
“Our goal was to win everything and go downstate, McShane said, “but it was a fun run.”
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge