Records? Title shots? What's at stake in final week of NIC-10 football season in Rockford

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Belvidere North's Nico Bertolino (17) and Gabriel Lang (5) celebrate a touchdown against Freeport on Aug. 27. If North wins Friday at Guilford, the Blue Thunder can celebrate at least a tie for only their second NIC-10 title in history.

No NIC-10 football team will squeak into the playoffs with a win in its final game. No team will get bounced out with a disheartening loss. Half the conference has already clinched a playoff berth. The other half is out for sure.

But there is still a lot to play for Friday — including four teams with a shot at a conference title, playoff positioning, a chance for a school to tie its best record in 40 years and for another to set school records. Here are the top storylines for Friday:

Can Belvidere North stay in first?

Belvidere North, ranked No. 10 in Class 6A, has been the NIC-10 front-runner since upsetting Boylan 31-28 in Week 3. But a 21-17 loss at Harlem last week leaves the Blue Thunder tied at 7-1 with Boylan, ranked No. 8 in 5A. Boylan, which plays at Freeport (3-5), seems highly likely to win at least a share of its 16th conference title since 1991. North is trying to win a share of only its second; the Blue Thunder tied Auburn at 8-1 in 2014, coach Jeff Beck’s second season. They play at Guilford (6-2) Friday.

“It would be a great accomplishment for our kids,” Beck said, “especially because we didn’t really know what we would be like this year. We replaced a lot of starters from last year. Being in that conversation is cool already. It’s kind of uncharted territory for our program.”

Boylan's Connor Dennis hands off to Mekhi Glover on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022, at Boylan High School in Rockford.

A three-way NIC-10 tie?

North’s opponent also has a slim shot at the NIC-10 title. If Guilford (6-2) wins and Boylan loses, the NIC-10 would have a three-way tie for the first time in 38 years, since Hononegah, Boylan and Jefferson all went 6-2 back in 1984.

“They are having a heck of a season,” Beck said of Guilford. “In my first year as a head coach in 2013, they were 7-2 that year and were pretty danged good. To see them having success and playing a game at the end of the season that is big for both teams, that’s cool. A game that is important for both programs makes it that much more fun and interesting. Friday night lights by itself is exciting; having extra meaning for a high school football games makes it that much cooler for both programs.”

More:Why Guilford football has never looked better — even after a loss to Boylan

Guilford quarterback Skyler Wolf, shown handing off to NIC-10 leading rusher Jayvon Jones, returns for the season finale against Belvidere North after missing last week with a concussion.

A chance to tie a 40-year high

Guilford had an undefeated state championship season in 1982, when the Vikings featured one of the league’s first high-powered passing attacks. They made the playoffs eight times in 10 years from 2004-13, but they have never gone better than 7-2 in the regular season since that title team. This year, Guilford has not only snapped its longest football slump in school history, making the playoffs for the first time in nine years, they can also join the 1995, 2006, 2007 and 2013 teams as the only Guilford teams to win seven regular-season games in the last 40 years.

“Oh, man, we have been talking all year about how excited I am for our kids who have been invested and put the time in, grinding through, and to see them rewarded for their efforts means a lot to me,” Guilford coach Tony Capriotti said. “Wins and losses mean a lot. I’ve been here for 10 years. To work for something and achieve it, that is something they can take with them for the rest of their lives.”

Guilford lost 27-2 to Boylan last week, but that was with a fullback filling in as a third-string quarterback and a several special-teams miscues. Guilford held Boylan to zero points on all three possessions the Titans began on the Guilford side of the 50 in the first half. Guilford also gets starting quarterback Skyler Wolf back from a concussion this week.

“Last week I was more happy with how we competed than in several of our wins,” Capriotti said. “We’re showing that grit and determination. We are improving a lot each week. Offensively, we’re much more balanced than we have been in a long time. And on defense, we’re getting takeaways and swarming to the ball.”

Title on the line in Rochelle

Rochelle (7-1, 4-0 Interstate 8 Blue) hosts No. 2-ranked Richmond-Burton (8-0, 4-0). The winner takes not only its division of the conference but could also be the top seed in the northern half of the Class 4A state playoffs. A win would match Rochelle’s best season since 2004, the last of former coach Kevin Crandall’s great teams, who went 71-11 in a seven-year stretch.

"We haven’t had the fortune of playing a game like this since 2018 and prior to that back in 2004," Rochelle coach Kyle Kissack said. "So it hasn’t happened very often here as of late, but it's certainly something we set out to do at the beginning of the season."

Richmond-Burton is 40-1 the last four years, including one state title. "They've clearly got it rolling there," Kissack said. Both teams like to run as much as possible, but Richmond-Burton QB Joe Morton completed 11 of 16 passes for 131 yards and three TDs in the Rockets' biggest win, 33-26 over Normal West, which is ranked No. 7 in Class 6A.

"The line of scrimmage and time of possession are going to be critical," Kissack said. "They are going to grind it out and we are going to try to do the same."

Rochelle has been a 5A team in 14 of its last 16 playoff appearances, dropping to 4A only in 2013 and 2017. But projections this year have the 5A cutoff beginning at 921 students. Rochelle is comfortably under that at 832.

Rochelle Dad:I found a better experience than playing high school football — watching my son do it

Jefferson coach Jacob Arnold talks to players during a drill during the J-Hawks football practice in 2019 at Jefferson High School in Rockford.

Record-setting J-Hawks

It’s hard to generate excitement in a program that has had 29 consecutive losing seasons. But Jefferson is trying. The J-Hawks (1-7) are averaging 26.9 points a game, which would tie the school record set in 1992.

Also, sophomore Sebastian Bracius has already set school records with 1,480 yards passing and 15 TDs. Tyler Gaines has tied Katrell George’s Jefferson record with 10 touchdown catches and, with 617 yards, has joined Ricky Ellis as the only J-Hawk with 600 yards receiving. Nick James (445 yards) needs 55 yards to be the sixth J-Hawk with 500 yards receiving.

Those are all numbers that have Jefferson excited — despite heart-breaking 32-30 and 46-44 losses the last two weeks.

“Our offense is finally starting to click,” Jefferson coach Jake Arnold said. “It has taken three years for us to start hitting on all cylinders and get the right pieces in place. To be the highest-scoring team in Jefferson history, that’s phenomenal. That’s a step forward for the program. And for Sebastian, being a sophomore, the sky is the limit for him. He’s making the right reads and can make adjustments on the fly.”

Jefferson finishes at home against East (2-6), which has allowed at least 39 points four times, including 47 and 42 to Guilford and Freeport the last two weeks. Any win would make Jefferson 2-7, which doesn’t sound like much but would be only the J-Hawks’ second two-win season in 10 years (they were 4-5 in 2016). And another high-scoring win would give them something to build on with a lot of their offensive players returning.

“We have been scoring points with every team we played except two,” Arnold said of the J-Hawks scoring at least 22 points against everybody except Boylan and Belvidere North, who each held them to 7. “Our guys have to learn how to finish but it’s exciting to see that they see what’s in front of them.

“They see that pot of gold. We can get this done. Now they’ve just got to take it. Nobody will give it to you. Nobody wants you to win. But I think this spring and summer our guys will come out with a different fire. we have a sophomore class that is getting a lot of reps in. They are going to be hungry.”

Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and three years covering the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.