Two years ago, following a 22-0 loss to eventual state champion Tri-Valley in the first round of the playoffs, there were plenty of emotions surrounding the West Carroll football team as a huge turnaround season came to an end.
But there was also hope.
"It was tough, it was emotional because we felt like we’d overcome so much that year, going from a 1-8 team to 5-4 and finally making the playoffs and losing," head coach Matt Leitzen said. "We mentioned before we walked off the field, if you work hard, this group is going to have an opportunity to play at home in the playoffs."
Saturday, the Thunder are getting that chance.
West Carroll hosts No. 2 Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley at 2 p.m., the first playoff game in Savanna since 2007.
It comes after the Thunder rolled to a 40-0 win over Fieldcrest in the first round last week, West Carroll's first playoff win in a decade.
"I’m sure there were probably some people who thought we were crazy, but the seniors now that were sophomores then embrace that idea," Leitzen said. "They understood that they had the talent and to see that come true is huge, it’s a big deal for them, and I’m super excited for them."
Leitzen has been turning the West Carroll program around since taking over in 2015. He took a team that went 1-8 the year before to a 5-5 finish and a playoff berth in 2015. After a 4-5 season last year, the Thunder are now 7-3, their best season since 1989.
While the regular season had been a success, earning that first playoff win could have been an additional challenge, but the Thunder didn't leave much doubt, taking an 8-0 lead midway through the first quarter on a touchdown run by Kaleb Plattenberger.
That touchdown got the Thunder rolling as they held the Knights to just 70 yards of offense.
"You just kind of sensed something throughout the week, that the kids were really focused in on what we were trying to accomplish," Leitzen said. "I thought when we took the field, the first couple of drives were important, to feel out your opponent, get caught up in game speed, and I really thought once we got that first touchdown that our kids knew we could do something offensively, and the defense has played great all year. That’s a huge shot in the arm when you know you can take some chances because your defense is playing that way."
Kaleb Plattenberger has rushed for 804 yards and 10 touchdowns this season while twin brother Kody has thrown for 1,280 yards and 15 touchdowns. The defense has been stout all season. Entering the postseason, the Thunder were allowing 11.9 points per game, tied for sixth among playoff teams.
That defense will be tested now against the second-ranked Falcons, who beat Eastland-Pearl City 50-14 in the first round. The 10-0 Falcons are averaging 47.4 points per game, led by running back Mitch McNutt, who ran for 117 yards and three touchdowns on just seven first-half carries in the first-round win. On the year, McNutt has 1,191 yards and 24 touchdowns.
"They're a very good team, a lot of talent on that team," Leitzen said. "They've got good size, good team speed. This is a week we've really stressed we're going to have to tackle well, get guys to the ball carrier. ... We've got to make them earn everything they get."
The growing success of the football team has led to growing support from the community. Fans made the trip to Minonk to watch the Thunder win last week, and Leitzen said everyone walking the halls of the school is decked out in playoff attire, ready for this weekend.
It is something the team embraces but also has to control heading into the weekend.
"Everybody's got a lot more school pride, and for a school that hasn't had some success in the postseason for some time ... I just think the kids love it. I expect a great crowd, a great atmosphere," Leitzen said. "You've got to be careful how you're balancing that. The way we want to play, you've got to have a little bit of an edge and a little bit of a swagger, but we can't be overhyped to start the game.
"I've seen kids and teams get so excited before the game that when that opening kickoff comes, you're just drained. That's something we've talked about. You've got to keep an even keel, and when that ball is kicked, you've got to amp it up."