Why SHG and Rochester's fierce football rivalry will never be just another game

Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register
Rochester Coach Derek Leonard, left, gives the Sacred Heart-Griffin coach, and his dad, Ken Leonard, a hug at the conclusion of the game Friday. Nov. 18. 2022.

Since Rochester shocked the Central State Eight Conference in 2010 with a 13-10 win over Sacred Heart-Griffin in the Rockets’ first season in the league, this football rivalry has been the best in central Illinois.

Maybe in the entire state.  

Friday’s 56-42 improbable comeback win by SHG over Rochester at Ken Leonard Stadium in the Class 4A semifinals added one more reason to call it that. Rochester (11-2) led 28-0 in the second quarter and 42-21 in the third before SHG (13-0) stormed back to take a 49-42 lead on a Richard Jackson 45-yard touchdown with 6 minutes, 36 seconds to go.  

We all know it as the Leonard Bowl with father Ken Leonard guiding SHG and with son Derek Leonard in charge of Rochester. We — the media, the fans, the spectators, and alumni — get worked into a lather because of the family connections. We love to see the son beat his old man or we want to say the old man’s still got it.

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Ryan Mahan

But I’m telling you: if SHG was coached by some guy named Jones and Rochester was led by a guy named Reed and both schools still had the same levels of success, it’s still the greatest rivalry in this area and one of the top in the state. 

“It’s ‘the’ rivalry from anywhere,” Rochester coach Derek Leonard said.  

This was the final Leonard Bowl. A year ago, Ken Leonard announced he would retire after this season. He had already won five state titles and is the winningest coach in Illinois history. 

Rochester and SHG have 13 combined state championships — 10 since Rochester left the Corn Belt Conference to join the CS8 in 2010.

When the Rockets shook up the CS8 with their win on Sept. 17, 2010 to end SHG’s 59-game Central State Eight winning streak, which dated back to Oct. 12, 2001, they sent this annual matchup — and now a third-straight postseason meeting — from a curiosity into a must-watch game for any high school football fan.

Two years later, SHG opened its own stadium in Week 2 against Rochester. The Cyclones overcame a 26-21 deficit and then survived two Rochester chances late in the fourth quarter to win 29-26 in one of the best games I’ve seen.  

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A year later in Rochester, the Rockets turned in another instant-classic win in the series, though the IHSA eventually awarded the win to SHG after Rochester was found to have used an ineligible player. There have been some blowouts, too, but that’s usually been a testament of that winner’s strength.  

“I think it’s because these programs are two of the best in the state. No question,” Ken Leonard said. “And you get a game like this? And we’ve had a number of these. Derek’s won some and we’ve won some.” 

If Rochester’s eight state titles since 2010 and SHG’s two in that same time span didn’t turn this matchup of two annual title contenders into frenzy, three straight postseason meetings sure have.  

When SHG was in 5A or 6A and Rochester was in 4A, the regular-season game gave the winner some bragging rights. But a loss wouldn’t cost either side a trip to Champaign or DeKalb.  

But two of the best programs in the state — especially south of I-80 — from the same conference with win-or-go-home on the line has turned this game into something few ever saw coming. Father/son notwithstanding.  

Don’t take my word for it. SHG receiver and corner back Jake Hamilton, who watched his older brother Charlie Hamilton play for the Cyclones before Jake was even in high school, said when SHG was trailing by four touchdowns early, he wasn’t feeling too lovingly toward his opponents. 

“There’s a lot of emotion. You saw it at the end of the game,” Hamilton said. “Coach Leonard from Rochester got emotional, we were emotional on the sidelines the whole time.  

“That’s just how football is: it’s an emotional sport and you saw it out here but at the end of the day, it’s all about love — especially between these two teams.” 

Before the game and after the game, the Leonard Bowl means something more than football. During the game, it’s about one team trying to take what the other team wants.  

It was fitting that the Leonard Bowl finale might be the most insane game the two schools have played. And I’ve long maintained that SHG’s Class 5A state championship over Lombard Montini in 2013 was my personal all-timer in terms of sheer unbelievability.

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With nearly 850 yards of offense, four turnovers and the kicking team recovering two kickoffs, this game had it all — including sub-freezing temperatures. When the game went live, it wasn’t about Ken Leonard vs. Derek Leonard. It was down to two great teams going at it for a chance at one more state championship. 

“I think the last two playoff games (with Rochester) were probably the craziest games to ever play: Leonard Bowl, whatever, IHSA. Some crazy games,” Hamilton said, referencing SHG’s come-from-behind 49-42 win in last season’s 4A semifinals.  

Next year, with John Allison taking the reins at SHG, this matchup might feel like more of a regular old rivalry.

But it will never be just a game.

Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546,,