CRYSTAL LAKE – More than two hours into the first practice of football season, the big fellas on the Prairie Ridge Wolves lined up across from heavy red bags manned by teammates.
The objective was as clear as the task was exhausting.
Explode out of your stance. Deliver a forearm blow. And drive, drive, drive.
“This is where the game’s won or lost,” Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp yelled above the sounds of thudding bags and grunting linemen. “Right here.”
The coach’s words rang true well beyond the line of scrimmage.
Right here is a grass field on the northern edge of the school’s property. Right here is a mostly sunny morning almost two full weeks before the first day of classes. Right here includes no opponent, no scoreboard, no halftime speech and no fans in the bleachers.
Right here is where the games are won or lost.
Right here is where Prairie Ridge is determined to be great.
Two years ago, the Wolves were better than great. They were the greatest. Two days after Thanksgiving Day in 2011, they won the Class 6A state championship with a 35-14 victory against Peoria Richwoods at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
Last year, the Wolves were far from great. They lost top running back Jordan Getzelman, who decided not to play football after committing to play baseball for the Missouri Tigers, and they lost others to graduation and injuries. At one point, 15 players were out injured.
Just like that, the Wolves went from going 13-1 and winning the state championship to going 3-6 and missing the playoffs. It marked their first losing season in 10 years.
This season presents a clean slate.
“We can’t live in the past with being bad just like we can’t live in the past saying we were good after the state championship,” said Schremp, whose team will open the season Aug. 30 against Notre Dame College Prep in Niles. “We are where we are. We’re a completely different team. New guys.”
That’s always the case, last season included.
“I always thought it was funny when they said we were defending our state championship,” Schremp said. “Well, shoot, half of the guys were gone. The guys who were defending it weren’t the same guys. And this group is not the 3-6 group from last year.”
But the school and the coach remain the same, and that means something. Schremp’s teams have compiled an 82-39 record for a .678 winning percentage during his 11 seasons as coach.
To play for the Wolves is to accept a certain standard of excellence.
“That’s more of a practice in work ethic than anything: ‘This is the way we do things,’ ” Schremp said. “And they still get that.
“I see the work ethic that we have now is what it’s been in the past. That’s the thing about it. If I’m fighting for guys to be at practice right now or if I’m fighting for guys to work hard in practice, then, yeah, we’re not Prairie Ridge anymore.”
They’re still Prairie Ridge.
They’ll be back, starting with another three-hour practice at 8 a.m. Thursday, on that familiar grass field where the games are won or lost.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.