Matt Leitzen looks to be building something special.
In just his third year as head football coach at West Carroll High School, Leitzen has the Thunder sitting at 5-2, poised to make the playoffs for the second time in his tenure.
It may not sound all that impressive, but playoff appearances aren't a normal occurrence out in Savanna, Illinois. The Thunder made the playoffs three straight years from 2005-07 but just once since, in Leitzen's first year.
In the 93 years of record on the IHSA website, football teams in Savanna are a combined 340-438-25, but Leitzen looks to be changing the culture.
"I think the biggest thing that we’ve tried to change is giving the kids, I know we’ve got talent, I know there’s talent here, but I think for a long time our kids didn’t have a lot of confidence, took the field maybe not certain of themselves," he said. "We’ve just tried to restore a little bit of confidence in them that we’re a good football team."
This year, the Thunder are showing just how good they are. They opened the season with a 34-20 loss to Class 1A No. 1 Lena-Winslow, then rolled off four straight wins before giving up a last-minute field goal in a 10-8 loss to Dakota, a program with three state titles since 2005.
The Thunder rebounded with a 26-7 road win over Eastland-Pearl City, which won a state title in 2014.
"For these kids, I would maybe make the argument it’s the biggest win they’ve had in their career," Leitzen said. "Program-wise, we won a playoff game (in 2007), this might be No. 2. I hate to put this ahead of a playoff game, but this is dang close."
Even though the Thunder made the playoffs two years ago, now Leitzen is seeing the confidence grow and really take a leap after last week's win.
"There was a period there in the first two years where we still took the field with some doubt," he said. "We thought we were a better team, we knew we were a better team but still didn’t think we could measure up to the elite teams in our conference. Now our kids take the field and think, ‘Yup, we belong.’"
Offensively, the Thunder are led by twins Kody and Kaleb Plattenberger. Kody has been a captain since his sophomore year and plays quarterback while Kaleb plays running back. Both have been key parts of the team's success.
Kody has thrown for 848 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 113 yards and three scores. Kaleb has added 239 yards and five scores on the ground, and also 354 yards and three touchdowns receiving.
"The twin-to-twin connection, we joke about it, but I don’t know if there’s any two kids on the team you trust playing catch more than those two," Leitzen said. "That’s a nice thing throughout a game — when I see Kaleb break open, I’m almost certain Kody knows where he’s at."
Along with the Plattenbergers, Kaleb Hartman is another key piece with more than 600 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground as well as 59 tackles and an interception on defense. He's also been key opening up holes for the Plattenbergers to run through and draws rave reviews from Leitzen.
"He's had one of the best football seasons I've seen in a while," Leitzen said. "He's arguably that kid you just can't lose."
Perhaps where Leitzen has seen the biggest turnaround with the Thunder has been on the defensive side. The year before he took over, the Thunder allowed more than 49 points per game. In his first season that number was cut in half, and this year West Carroll is only allowing 8.1 points per game and has posted three shutouts.
"When we play well, when we do our job, when we complete our assignments on either side of the ball, we give ourselves a chance," Leitzen said. "That was the message Year 1 was let’s be competitive, let’s not have a state championship goal, we’re not there, but we wanted to be in games.
"You give yourself a chance to win when you do a lot of little things right, and that was really our focus."
Next up for the Thunder is Class 1A No. 3 and defending state champion Forreston, currently 6-1 on the season.
"If you want to be the best you have to play the best," Leitzen said. "That's something we don't want to shy away from. If you want to make yourself one of the elite teams and have people talk about you like they talk about Forreston, you have to play those teams and you have to beat some of those teams."
The success is trickling down the program. The sophomore team is 6-1, and there's more excitement with each win.
With five wins and a strong playoff number, West Carroll looks poised to make the playoffs, but it can secure a spot with a win in the next two weeks, either against Forreston or West Dubuque.
Another postseason berth, and maybe even a win or two, would continue to bolster the growing culture that is being created in West Carroll.
"I don't want it to go away, that's for sure," Leitzen said. "I do think we've started something here, and I'd like to think it will be sustainable. It's all part of a process, and I think if we can keep playing competitive, we'll get football to where it needs to be, not just this year or next year but in the distant future. I'm hoping we can keep something that's fun for our fans and fun for our kids."