Football File Art

During the past handful of years, Watseka and Mascoutah saw two of the biggest football turnarounds in the state of Illinois, going from lengthy playoff droughts to postseason runs in the process. Aaron Hilgendorf, the coach behind the Warriors’ turnaround during that time, now will look to keep the momentum building in Mascoutah, where he will be the school’s new football coach and physical education teacher.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking to leave the people you love, especially the boys that have worked so hard and bought into the culture we’ve worked so hard to build at Watseka,” Hilgendorf said. “There’s a lot of guys, including the eighth-graders coming in, [who] I’d love to coach because they’re great young men [who] have done everything we’ve asked.

“I’m so proud of them, and it hurts my heart to tell them I’m leaving, and it was different, but it was something that was necessary because I wanted them to hear it from me.”

Hilgendorf compiled a 28-19 record in five seasons with the Warriors, including the school’s first home playoff win and trip to the state quarterfinals since 1986 during a 2019 season that saw the team finish 7-4 before the team went 4-2 in the shortened season this spring.

“I can’t thank these players enough; I learned so much from coaching the individuals I had,” Hilgendorf, 36, said. “I want this group to be remembered for relationships they built and the growth, both as a program and as individuals.

“The community rallied behind this football program and supported us, and the on-field success was a blast, being able to see what they built for themselves.”

Hilgendorf, a Donovan graduate who played for Tri-Point during the school’s co-op, first came to Watseka in 2008 after a year at Central. He was an assistant football coach until leaving in 2015 to serve for a year as the head coach at Prairie Central before his return to the Warriors in 2016.

In addition to the football coach and high school PE teacher, the Watseka community also will be losing Jennifer Hilgendorf, Aaron’s wife and an elementary school teacher in the district, who also will teach at Mascoutah, a town in southern Illinois.

“We’re not only losing a great football coach but a great teacher — his wife is also a great teacher, and they’re a great family in the community ...” Watseka athletic director Barry Bauer said. “I share an office with him, but they’re my neighbors, too, so we see a lot of each other, and they’re staples in this community.

“It’s probably tough for the student-athletes to understand, but some day they will, but they all look up to him, and it’s [going to] be a little tough here.”

Aaron said the decision to leave was difficult, but the opportunity for a new challenge was enticing, as was the chance to test out the waters of living in a new community with Jennifer and their sons, Jack, 11; Harrison, 9; and Mason, 5.

“Our kids have grown up here, we have family here, and we have friends [who] are like family here, so it will all be different, but you challenge yourself,” Aaron said. “We’re always talking about how you can be the best version of you, and Mascoutah is that opportunity for us to stretch ourselves and challenge ourselves, and that’s exciting.”

With this school year’s football season taking place in the spring instead of the fall, Bauer and Watseka have a quick timeframe to find a new coach before preparation for the fall begins.

“With the season just ending you’d think you have time, but we don’t because June workouts are right around the corner,” Bauer said. “We’re kind of late in the game, and that concerns me a bit, but we have a few ideas, and hopefully they pan out.”

The transition to find a new coach will have to be swift, but Aaron said he hopes the memories made the past handful of years last a lifetime.

“I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing what [former players] become as husbands and fathers and seeing them do great things,” Aaron said. “That’s the exciting part, looking back on those relationships that were built, seeing them have success later in life, and hopefully Watseka football is part of that.”

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.