Aquin quarterback Kevin Schleich now lives in Iowa City.
"We have some kids playing football. They bring up some fun games. No one ever believes me when I tell them we had a game 78-74. It doesn’t seem real."
Especially back in 2002.
Aquin’s victory over Eastland/Pearl City in a battle of perennial NUIC powers smashed the state record with 152 combined points. The previous record was 130 back in 1921. Even more impressive than breaking an 81-year-old record with 20 points to spare was how it was broken: The previous loser scored only 7 points in a 123-7 blowout. This game was a classic from the first snap. And there were no overtimes. Just 78-74 in regulation. A national record at the time for points scored by a losing team.
Since then, 11 other Illinois football games have combined for at least 130 points as the sport has changed dramatically, but it was a stunning result at the time.
This game, picked as the greatest high school football game in Freeport-area history, was legendary even before it finished. A crowd of 2,000 fans surrounding Aquin’s cozy Conley Field may have doubled by the time Joe Janecke scored the winning 41-yard touchdown as word quickly spread about the historic shootout.
"Because we were always scoring, the clock was running slow," E/PC coach Bill Johnson said. "By the end of the game, all the other town’s games were done and it seemed like 5,000 people were at Conley Field. It was incredible."
And incredibly draining. Johnson said at the time that he felt "like the state’s biggest loser" and even winning coach Marty Janecke of Aquin wasn’t thrilled.
"I ran into Marty at a volleyball tournament the next day and it was almost like they had lost," Johnson said. "We were both shell-shocked. Neither one of us could figure out what the hell happened."
What happened starts with Kam Kniss, probably the greatest quarterback in NUIC history.
"Kam Kniss’ arm was next to impossible to defend," said Aquin lineman Curtis Kempel, who intercepted a tipped pass to set up the Bulldogs’ winning touchdown.
"We never beat Eastland in football," Schleich said. "We could not beat Kam."
Especially when armed with Johnson’s four-wide receiver spread offense. South Beloit, which would win the Class 1A state title with Jered Shipley that year, was the only other team that threw the ball nearly as much as E/PC.
"Kam Kniss was unbelievable," said Don Werntz, who has been broadcasting Freeport-area football games on radio for 46 years. "I don’t think anybody ever figured that offense out."
Both teams entered the game 4-0 and the Wildcatz had scored at least 42 points in every game. Werntz said coach Johnson "wanted to make other teams prepare for one game out of the nine they hadn’t prepared for all year long."
It worked. Playing E/PC was like playing a completely different game.
"We were used to going up against a run offense versus a run defense," Kempel said. "They were the only area team that did that back then. Trying to stop a spread offense, with most of us playing both ways, we weren’t prepared to defend them."
And E/PC (7-4) wasn’t prepared for the physical play of the Bulldogs (11-1), who would stay undefeated until losing 34-16 to state champion South Beloit in the state quarterfinals. That was one of only three games in which Aquin was held under 32 points.
"They were out of the wishbone and, man, they could run off tackle as good as anybody," Kniss said. "I came in in the second half and tried to play defense. I couldn’t do anything. I was worthless. Aquin just kept running off tackle all day long on us and we could not stop it."
E/PC could pass great and Aquin could run great. That’s how both teams topped 30 points almost every game. But E/PC could also run — star halfback Jon Lower had 1,700 yards one season — and Aquin could pass when it needed to. That’s how both teams topped 70 this game.
"We didn’t pass the ball unless we needed to," Kempel said. "We needed to that game."
Schleich completed 10 of 16 passes for career highs of 229 yards and five touchdowns, including a 50-yarder for Aquin’s second score and 59 and 41 yards for the final two TDs.
"We were only on defense for two plays at a time and then we were back on offense," Schleich said. "You had to keep up or otherwise you would be left in the dust.
"But I think of Kam as the quarterback in that game."
Kniss actually ran for more touchdowns (5) than he passed for (3) in that game, illustrating E/PC’s balance.
"It was the most balanced we were in all the years I was there," Kniss said, adding that E/PC lost that diversity when Lower, who would play at Illinois as a walk-on, broke his leg in the last game of the regular season.
"We weren’t as one dimensional as people thought," E/PC coach Johnson said. "We used motion and disguised things. They were all backed up to stop the pass and we’d get outside on a sweep."
Or Kniss would keep the ball and run. The Wildcatz kept defenses guessing.
"It was a numbers game," said Werntz, who covered many E/PC games on radio. "I’ve never seen a team that had to worry about defending three things be as good as a team that had to worry about just one."
At 5-foot-10, Kniss was too short to be a Division I prospect before the likes of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson showed quarterbacks didn’t have to be 6-foot-2, but he became a two-time conference player of the year and North Central College Hall of Famer in Division III, throwing for more than 10,000 yards.
And he had E/PC in position to win this epic game until the game’s only two turnovers turned the tide Aquin’s way. The first was a fumble by Lower on the last play of the third quarter with E/PC leading by 18 points.
"Earlier in the game, Lower dislocated his finger and on that play he got hit on the same finger and the ball popped out," Johnson said.
Aquin would go on to score five touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. A Kniss 15-yard TD run seemed to give E/PC a somewhat safe 74-62 lead with 4:20 left, but Schleich quickly hit Mike Vogt with a 59-yard TD pass and Kempel intercepted Kniss two plays later.
"I was rolling out and somebody got a hand on it and tipped it in the air," Kniss said. "My other stats don’t matter. It’s the interception that I threw at the end of the game that didn’t seal the deal. That’s the one that sticks with you."
"In my mind," coach Johnson said, "it went in slow motion. I saw the linebacker coming across. ‘Nooooo.’ That’s when they caught the ball."
Danny Newberry, who returned an early kickoff 77 yards for a touchdown, tipped the ball before Kempel grabbed it.
"It happened so fast," Kempel said. "I just remember thinking, ‘Somebody better grab it’ and I was the one there. We used to do a tip drill in practice. You’d line up and somebody would tip it up like a volleyball and you had to go behind and catch it. It was exactly like that. I didn’t have to think. I just reacted."
Aquin still had to score. E/PC had two chances to stop the Bulldogs, who went to Joe Janecke, their coach’s son, for a pair of fourth-down conversions.
"He was a stud — the best running back in the area," Johnson said.
Janecke ran 16 times for 120 yards, but was even more dangerous as a receiver this game, with four catches for 117 yards.
Including the game-winning 41-yard catch on fourth-and-15.
"When they needed to have a catch, they put him in the slot where you couldn’t bump him," Johnson said. "We knew it was coming. Both my quarterback and safety pointed to him. He was at the line of scrimmage, meaning he was going to get the ball. He still caught the ball."
But because E/PC knew it was coming, the double-covered Janecke switched the play from a fade route to a pattern where he pulled up in front of the defenders.
"It was fourth-and-15, way too far," Schleich said. "The guy was playing off. Joe flashed the hitch sign. He didn’t get far enough. He probably only ran a 12-yard pattern. But Joe broke two tackles and ran the rest of the way. It was 100% him on that play.
"If he didn’t break the tackles, though, his dad would have killed him for running the hitch play."
That may have been Aquin’s toughest TD drive, needing two fourth downs and 10 plays. But that worked out well. In a game in which the two teams scored touchdowns all 10 times they had the ball in the first half, Aquin wanted to win this game on offense, not defense.
"Thank God we took some time," Schleich said. "They would have scored again if they had been given a little more time."
Matt Trowbridge: email@example.com; @matttrowbridge