This small Illinois high school football program refuses to be defined by its losing streak
Litchfeld has reasons for encouragement despite its losing streak
Litchfield football has been mired in obscurity for a while, but to hear coach Dan Carlson and his players tell it, its rise already has begun.
The Purple Panthers are on a 46-game losing streak. The program's last win came on Oct. 16, 2015, against Hillsboro. Carlson said the program became locked into a cycle of low numbers, freshmen playing on varsity and then leaving the program before they became seniors. Rinse and repeat.
When the time came for the COVID-19 delayed 2020 season to finally be played — football programs around the state were limited to a six-game season without playoffs in the spring of 2021 due to the pandemic — Carlson said he knew the time was right to hit the reset button.
“We took the spring season," Carlson said, "and really blew up the program."
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Litchfield — a 368-student school located 40 miles south of Springfield — didn’t field a varsity team that year. Instead, the program played a six-game junior varsity schedule and allowed young players to have a chance against players closer to their own level of competition.
'Lay down the foundation'
Carlson’s Panthers begin the 2022 season with 52 players in the program — up from just 22 when he arrived. Litchfield plans to have full freshmen and JV schedules.
“I’ve got five seniors and a vast majority of them are juniors, so we’re still in a growth process,” Carlson said. “The cavalry is coming.”
Seniors like wide receiver/safety Jake Cunningham could be discouraged. Litchfield may not fare much better record-wise in the South Central Conference than in previous seasons. But he’s excited to show the growth and progress the team has made regardless.
“I think maybe not this year, but in the following years, we’ll have a really, really good team,” Cunningham said. “I hope that every upperclassman lay down that foundation. It wasn’t about winning games last year; it was about trying to improve and be better.”
Striving for success
While a player at Troy Triad, Carlson’s teams made the playoffs all four years. The 2009 Triad graduate was an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association all-state defensive lineman during his 2008 senior campaign. He was recruited to play at NCAA Division II Northwest Missouri State, and he redshirted during the 2009 national championship season.
Though knee and shoulder injuries cut short his playing days, he served as a student and graduate assistant with the Bearcats for four years before he became an assistant coach at Belleville Althoff. From there, he was at Collinsville for two years before his first head coaching job at North Mac — a 4-5 season in 2017.
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He was an assistant at Southeast in Springfield for the 2018 and 2019 seasons before he was hired at Litchfield.
“When I took over, we had 22 in the program and I didn’t have a single senior,” Carlson said of Litchfield. “One of the problems we had historically was we were bringing freshmen up to play at the varsity level and it wasn’t good. There’s a difference between a 14-year-old boy and an 18-year-old young man. There’s maturity, there’s strength and conditioning.”
Carlson said it’s impossible to win in a league such as the South Central when a bulk of the few players on the roster are underclassmen.
“We’ve got great coaches in this conference, from the best teams to the worst teams,” Carlson said. “They run great programs and you can’t put freshmen out there — I don’t care what level you’re at. You think they can play but they can’t (and the ones who can are) few and far between.
“(Current sophomore defensive lineman and offensive guard) Harrison Thomas (last year) was different; his future is very bright.
“Just being able to physically play in the game, there’s the intellectual ability of knowing the playbook … (and) there’s the emotional aspect of it.”
Not a movie script
While Carlson and the players are excited about the program’s development, success won’t be measured this season by a certain number of wins — let alone playoff qualification.
“Here’s the problem I have: way too many people watch Disney movies and they expect Mighty Ducks stories to happen of taking the lovable losers and turning the program around overnight,” Carlson said. “We have great kids. These are the kind of kids you want to bring home and want babysitting your kid.
“It’s not their hearts, it’s not their efforts but sometimes it’s one of those things it takes time to build a program and it’s very difficult to win with a young program. Last year … in the Greenville game, I look out and we have 10 freshmen and sophomores out there.”
Things are changing, said junior quarterback Tate Dobrinich, who wants successful freshman and JV programs to take the reins.
“It used to be a Litchfield football team," he said, "but we want to change it to the Litchfield football program."
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Carlson said Ron Anglin and Cody Younker have helped revitalize the junior football program in Litchfield and credits them for helping increase the high school numbers. Carlson calls Younker “energetic” and said the two of them “have really breathed life back into the JFL program and they are committed to building the program up from the ground level.
“They are vertically aligning with us, they’re teaching the kids the same language and the same things we are. I can sit there and generally tell you what programs are good based on their JFL,” Carlson said.
Despite the fifth-straight 0-9 season in 2021, Carlson said he saw positive signs.
“Last year, we didn’t give up; that’s growth,” he said. “We got 40-balled (mercy rule) every game, but we didn’t give up.
“Our kids know what they are. Our kids knew that they are a very young team that was forced to play varsity. It’s unfair what’s happened to these kids, it’s unfair that they have not been able to play in a system that they have not been allowed to progress in the natural way.
“At Carlinville and Pana, their freshmen play freshmen, then they move to JV and then they earn a spot on varsity. That’s why I’m seeing progress right now is because we’re getting the ability to play competition.”
Senior receiver Cunningham said he holds his head higher when in the community as a representative of the Litchfield football team.
“I feel like this year it definitely is (more excitement around the community),” said Cunningham, who is Dobrinich’s cousin. “We had one scrimmage here and there were people packed (to watch). People are definitely talking about (the team) more and they’re getting into it more. I’ve heard a lot more people talking about it; they’re kind of excited about it.”
Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.