Wilmington’s football team ran its short gauntlet last spring to the tune of a dominant 5-0 record and an Illinois Central Eight title. But because of the delayed, shortened season thanks to COVID-19, their season ended with that perfect record and plenty of questions as to how far the Wildcats could have gone.

Fast forward one full fall regular season and postseason, and the Wildcats still have yet to lose a game in the calendar year.

Now, they’re state champions for the second time in school history.

In true Wildcats fashion, Wilmington used its double-wing rushing attack to eat up yards and time of possession, a stout, physical defensive effort and a momentum-making special teams effort that all combined to give the Wildcats a 24-7 victory against Nashville in Saturday’s IHSA Class 2A state championship at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

“To see these guys react that way after the game, those are the memories you’ll never forget. ... We’re all in this together,” Wilmington coach Jeff Reents said. “We are Wilmington; we are one.

“This goes to all the kids in our program, our community and our school.”

On the third play of the game from scrimmage, Wildcats cornerback Ryan Banas picked off Nashville’s Kolten Gajewski just past midfield, allowing Wilmington to open its first offensive possession from the Nashville 44-yard line.

In true Wilmington fashion, the Wildcats milked 7:40 off the opening-quarter clock and finished off their 11-play, 56-yard touchdown when Jacob Friddle found a bit of daylight and turned it into a 23-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.

“That was one of the top moments of my football career,” Friddle said. “It felt really great to run into that end zone, have everyone come up to me and hearing the fans cheering in the stands.”

After a Hornets three-and-out, they were able to quickly get the ball back on a Wilmington turnover on downs at the Nashville 37-yard line. On a 4th-and-6 from the Wildcats’ 40-yard line, Gajewski completed his only pass of the first half, a slant route to all-state receiver Isaac Turner, who hit the speed boost for a 40-yard score that knotted things at 7 with 10 minutes remaining in the half.

That’s when the special teams made its mark, as the Wildcats’ Karsen Hansen blocked a Nashville punt deep in Nashville territory, one Allan Richards scooped up at the Hornets’ 18-yard line, setting the stage for quarterback Ryder Meents to sneak in the end zone from 1 yard out with 16 seconds left in the half to give Wilmington a 14-7 lead at the break.

“All week [special teams coach] Bobby Bolser prepped us for it and told us we were going to be able to get it, so I have to give him all the credit for that,” Hansen said of the blocked punt. “It felt amazing. I think it was a good turning point in the game.”

Wilmington appeared primed to score on their first drive of the second half as well but stalled out as Richards’ 47-yard attempt came up just short.

But the Wildcats’ defense wouldn’t let the Hornets get back into it, immediately forcing a three-and-out, their third of the day.

Against a Nashville offense that entered Saturday’s championship averaging 40 points per game in the postseason, Reents was pleased to see his defense answer the call, which included holding Nashville to minus-5 rushing yards and a coverage adjustment that saw Banas and linebacker Brendan Moran double-teaming Turner almost every play of the second half.

“I think first and foremost, we were able to stop the run with our guys and were able to drop off in coverage a bit,” Reents said. “I was worried if we couldn’t stop the run, now we’re dealing with the run and the passing game, but I thought our kids up front did a really good job.”

The other half of the equation was the Wildcats’ ability to maintain possession of the ball, as they ran 54 plays for 234 yards, chewing up 36:32 of the 48-minute clock.

“Our offense is designed to wear down the opponent the whole game,” offensive lineman Nick Sanford said. “I think, usually, after halftime we come out and just pound, pound, pound until [the defense] get[s] softer, and we get more holes open and run our offense the way we’re supposed to.”

That’s exactly what the Wildcats did, eventually tagging on a 34-yard score from Friddle and a 32-yard field goal from Richards in the fourth quarter to end their season in convincing fashion.

They failed to break the 40-point barrier for the first time all postseason, but Reents said the clock-chewing, yardage-grinding physical display his offense showed Friday was a sight to behold, especially because all 54 Wilmington offensive plays were rushing attempts.

“I know people love to pass the ball; I love it, too, but what looks even more beautiful to me are three linemen and a quarterback pulling in front of a running back, gunning for 6 yards, and then we’re going to huddle up and do it again …” Reents said. “I give [offensive coordinator] Barry Southall a ton of credit; he and coach Chad Farrell do a tremendous job of getting things rolling.”

Southall is one of three assistant coaches to have served on Reents’ staff for his 28-year coaching career in Wilmington, along with Bolser and line coach Rob Murphy. Murphy, the school’s hall-of-fame wrestling coach and physical education and driver’s education teacher coached his final Wildcats football game Friday, as he’s retiring at the end of the year.

“We’re thrilled for Rob; he’s meant so much to Wilmington, not just football but from a wrestling point of view and just the community, how many kids he’s led in the community,” Reents said. “I think we all agree Murph is definitely a huge part of why we have a medal around our necks. ... We’ll definitely miss Murph next year, no doubt.”

During those 28 seasons under Reents, the Wildcats now have qualified for 25 straight postseasons and have won their second title in three championship game appearances, adding a trophy to go alongside the Class 3A trophy the Wildcats won in 2014.

After the 5-0 season last spring, some members of the Wilmington community always will wonder if another trophy could have been won. That question never will be answered, but Reents said he credited the seniors from last year’s team for getting this year’s team started on the right foot as they began a journey that ended in jubilation.

“These guys did a great job of continuing that work ethic, and there’s a lot to be said coming off of the COVID year, what we did there and coming into this,” Reents said. “I think a lot has to be said of the seniors from the spring group; these guys took the baton and, obviously, did very well.”

For the 14 seniors this fall, including all-staters Sanford and Richards, they were able to fulfill the dream of many young boys in Wilmington.

“I’d say this group of seniors, the class of 2022, we’ve been looking forward to this since we were 5 or 6 [years old],” Richards said. “We went to a lot of [junior football] super bowls, lost those, but now we’re state champs.

“And it’s a great feeling.”

STAT BOOK

Friddle ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. Colin James added 19 carries for 71 yards. Richards had the recovery on Hansen’s blocked punt, booted a 32-yard field goal and had two tackles in the backfield. Banas had an interception, and Sanford had a sack.

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.