Before Belvidere finished its second consecutive state championship season in 1994, and before Boylan would advance to the state semifinals for the fourth year in a row that fall, the two met in midseason at Boylan.
The game was always going to be huge. But then the state rankings came out: Boylan was No. 1 and Belvidere No. 2 in Class 5A.
The entire town went nuts. More than 8,500 fans showed up to Boylan that Friday and WIFR aired the game between the two 4-0 teams on tape delay Saturday afternoon.
"It was almost like a college game," then-Belvidere coach Vern Pottinger said. "They put up extra lights for television."
And the game matched the hype, with Boylan edging the Bucs 14-13 to make this our pick for the third-greatest football game in Rockford-area history.
"We wound up losing, but it was such a good game, everybody had to enjoy it," Pottinger said. "It was just the kind of thing you would like to see in a high school football game: big crowds, lots of excitement, people getting behind their teams. Nothing bad happened. It was just good fun."
Boylan didn’t gloat after beating their arch rivals. Just the opposite: Coach Bill Thumm told reporters after the game: "If Boylan is No. 1 in the state, then they’re No. 1A" — which became the newspaper headline.
Everyone expected this to be just the warmup, that the two would meet again in the playoffs. Like they did the previous year, when Belvidere swept Boylan, including 9-0 in the 5A state semifinals, en route to a 14-0 championship season.
But this time, Belvidere unexpectedly dropped down a class and won the 4A title, while Boylan lost 27-20 in the 5A semifinals to a New Lenox Providence team. It was the first of four consecutive state titles for Providence, which would win 24 consecutive playoff games before losing in the 1998 state finals. Only four of those playoff wins would be as close as their 7-point win over the Titans.
These were clearly two of the greatest teams in NIC-10 history. And they were meeting head-to-head.
The whole town was captivated.
"It was nuts," Joe Faron, a two-way starting lineman for Boylan, said. "It was like something you would see in Texas for a Friday night football game. Every time I walked by the school office that week, there would be two or three more people joining the line to buy tickets. TV and radio were calling politicians to get their opinions on the game. It was shown on TV Saturday. It blew my mind how the game reached that level so quickly.
"Before we got to the field, walking to the hill that overlooks the stadium, you could hear a buzz, just a different sound than I’ve ever heard before. It was insane."
The action got off to a quick start with Aaron Latino scoring on a 37-yard run for Belvidere and Marc Bliven immediately answering with a 59-yard run that set up a 3-yard Bliven TD run to tie it at 7 late in the first quarter.
Belvidere went ahead 13-7 on its next drive, marching 66 yards in 17 plays and scoring on a 5-yard Latino run but pushing the extra point wide right.
Latino, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, never led the Bucs’ no-huddle option attack in carries but was the biggest star on both of their state title teams.
"He just meant so much to us," Pottinger said. "Our fullback carried a big load, but our halfback had the big running plays. Aaron had such quick feet and was great at running the counter play up over the center. He was one of the few we had who could get yards out of it."
That’s how it was against Boylan in 1994, too. Latino ran for 139 yards on 13 carries, while the rest of the Bucs rushed for 106 yards on 34 runs.
"He was lights out," said Dan Appino, Boylan’s sophomore coach at the time who later became head coach and led the Titans to their only two state titles. "He was a speed guy and he made it look easy. It was like he was on a different level. He wasn’t very big, but he could do everything."
Bliven (110 yards) was as good as Latino this game. He answered Latino’s second TD with a second TD of his own to put Boylan ahead 14-13 on David Miller’s extra-point kick. Three minutes and 22 seconds remained in the half, but neither team scored again.
"I thought both teams were going to have a hard time scoring after that," Faron said. "We knew each other so well and we got so settled into the game. One mistake here or there could change it, but I didn’t think either one of us would get to much more than 20 points."
Appino thought Boylan was lucky to get to 14.
"Tommy Hernandez caught a slant and got drilled just as he caught it," Appino said. "The ball came out but we got a first down out of it and went on to score. I remember thinking, ‘Man, we are getting some breaks here. This could be our day. If we come away with this, holy cow, we’ve got a real shot to beat a great team.’ To me, that was the play it all hinged on."
Pottinger also remembers that play as a turning point.
"They called it a completed pass and the play was over; we thought it should have been incomplete or a fumble," Pottinger said. "It was a bang-bang play. There was another one where Boylan had a long run up the sidelines. I think the runner stepped out of bounds. It wasn’t the referee’s fault; he was out of position because he had to get out of the way of the play. And we also had our chances."
Luke Thumm, Boylan coach Bill Thumm’s youngest son, stopped one of those chances, catching the swift Latino after a 63-yard run at the 31 after Belvidere had made a fourth-down stop inside its own 10. Belvidere reached the 10, but had a field goal blocked on fourth-and-2.
That proved to be the winning play and made Boylan No. 1 to Belvidere’s No. 1A — even though the Bucs are the ones that eventually won a state title.
"We don’t have a ring, but that game felt like it was a state championship game," Farron said. "They got to drop down and play in 4A. We ran into Providence, which didn’t lose a game for four years. It would have been something for both of us to win a state championship in the same year, but that game was more than that. It was bragging rights."
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge