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Remembering the Bucs

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It’s been 25 years since Belvidere High School achieved the improbable – winning consecutive football state titles. Today, those memories still burn bright for the team, school and community.

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On a sultry August afternoon, a handful of former coaches, along with a former player and manager, gather on the football field at Belvidere High School’s Funderburg Stadium. The stadium is quiet. The field isn’t even striped yet. The high school season is still a few weeks away.

But there are plenty of bear hugs and firm handshakes to go around. The stories start flying about anything and everything – from memorable games to retirement life. The group has gathered to celebrate a significant milestone in Belvidere football history.

Belvidere, a quiet town dubbed as the City of Murals, is largely known for three things: the arrival of the Chrysler plant in 1965; the one-time home to 1969 Miss America Judi Ford; and the devastating tornado in 1967 that rumbled through town, destroying dozens of homes, turning over school buses and killing 24, including 13 children.

But this rural farming community also had a magical run made by the Belvidere High School football team. In the 1993 and 1994 seasons, the Bucs did the unthinkable – winning back-to-back state football championships. Back then Belvidere only had one high school. Belvidere North opened its doors in 2007.

In 1993, the Bucs capped off a perfect 14-0 season by beating mighty Bolingbrook, 7-0, for the Class 5A title. The following year, Belvidere shut out a second straight title opponent by blanking Morris, 28-0, in Class 4A. The Bucs became the third NIC-9 school to win the state title following the Rockford East teams that won it in 1974 (Class 4A) and 1985 (5A), and Rockford Guilford (5A) in 1982.

It was the thrill of a lifetime for the players who dreamed as little boys of donning the Belvidere purple and gold. “We all grew up wanting to play Buc football,” says Jeff Gardner, the 1993 quarterback. “We talked about winning a championship when we were in grade school.”

Those Bucs teams, however, did more than bring home a couple of trophies. They captured the hearts of nearly every Belvidere resident – and not just football fans.

“The town just exploded with excitement,” said former coach Mike Hearn, who died in 2018 after a lengthy battle with cancer. “When I was teaching Drivers Education I remember driving around Belvidere and seeing about 65 different signs (supporting Bucs football) hanging in windows. The enthusiasm was through the roof. It was so new that it turned everyone on to Belvidere football.”

“It was a team of good guys who were close knit,” says radio broadcaster Dean Ervin, who covered the Bucs for WROK-AM at the time. “It was so cool to see the community come together to support the team.”

This, the 25th anniversary of the consecutive championships, appears to have snuck up on many who were involved with Belvidere football. But once the conversations begin, the memories begin to flow.

Former Belvidere coaches recently gathered at Funderburg Stadium, at Belvidere High School: (Left to Right) Curt Tobin, Tom Sternquist, Darwin Whitehead, Jon Maxwell (manager) and Chuck Larson.

Former Belvidere coaches recently gathered at Funderburg Stadium, at Belvidere High School: (Left to Right) Curt Tobin, Tom Sternquist, Darwin Whitehead, Jon Maxwell (manager) and Chuck Larson.

Man in Charge

While it took an entire group of coaches and players to win back-to-back titles, the architect of the Bucs’ success was head coach LaVern Pottinger, who took over the Belvidere program in 1977. It was Pottinger who installed the no-huddle wishbone offense that kept opponents on their heels for 48 minutes every game. “I really believed in simplicity,” he says. “I liked beating a team with good technique. We didn’t use a lot of trickery.”

Pottinger was a no nonsense coach, strong in faith, who didn’t swear and frowned on players and coaches who did. “I was tough on the kids and we demanded a lot,” he says. “The practices were tough. Looking back I wonder why anyone wanted to play for me.”

“With Pottinger, it didn’t matter if you were the star player or the last player on the team,” Ervin adds. “If you didn’t follow his rules, you were sitting.”

It was the 1988 Belvidere team that laid the groundwork for the championship teams. That year, Pottinger led the Bucs to their first-ever state title game appearance, a disappointing 29-26 loss to Peoria Richwoods.

“The defining moment was when we beat Wheaton North to get to the championship game,” said Hearn. “Just getting there was such a huge accomplishment. Then we were hungry to get back and win the thing.”

Jim Creighton was a fullback and defensive tackle on the 1993-94 championship teams. When he was a youngster playing in junior tackle, his coaches predicted state titles in his teams’ future. People could see potential in this particular group of players, which they lived up to. “Friday nights in Belvidere were all about Buc football,” he says. “Coach Pottinger and his coaching staff instilled a strong work ethic into their players that you don’t always see in other teams. That’s what made us stand out.”

Bucs Fever

No matter where you lived in Boone County, Bucs fans were everywhere.

Fred Brereton owns a small insurance business in downtown Belvidere. Brereton played for the Bucs in the late 1960s, and later served as Belvidere mayor for 16 years. During the championship seasons, Brereton held a celebration at his business during the Christmas holiday where players and coaches gathered to sign autographs for fans.

“Back then we had only one high school so the community came together to support the team,” he says. “You couldn’t wait to get your season tickets. You had to get them the first day they went on sale or they would be gone. They were in such demand.”

Another business impacted by the Bucs’ success was Ray’s Sporting Goods, owned by Ray and Denise Fish. Ray’s sold school uniforms for Belvidere and North Boone high schools, along with letterman jackets, NFL apparel, swim wear and other accessories. The store was open from 1977-2001.

“It was fantastic,” says Denise, of the Bucs’ title runs. “We were crazy busy. We sold sweatshirts both years that featured the team picture on them. We couldn’t keep them in stock fast enough.” Denise, whose husband died in 2000, never went to a game, however. She kept the store open until 9 p.m. on Friday nights. “I had a business to run,” she says.

The excitement also permeated the hallways of Belvidere High School. “Any time the football team does well, it boosts school spirit,” says Troy Yunk, who coached track and cross country and taught art classes at Belvidere before moving on to Belvidere North High School, where he’s coached three state cross country title teams for the Blue Thunder.

During the Bucs’ championship runs, Yunk’s art classes cranked out banners, posters and signs that were displayed in the windows of local businesses. “We’d put up one banner and another business would call,” he says. “People were driving down to the game when they saw banners of support secured to the overhangs along the highway. Boosters and parents put signs up along the road on the way downstate, miles away from Belvidere.”

A football championship is unlike any other for any high school. “It amps up the community spirit as well as the school spirit,” Yunk says. “It makes the environment within the school that much more fun. When the football team is winning everyone is in a good mood; when they’re not, everyone is feeling blah. Our cross country meets were Saturday mornings so we’d be walking around the course with a little more pride after a big win on Friday night.”

Defense Keys First Championship

The Bucs opened the 1993 season with wins over Rockford Jefferson and Hononegah. In Week 3, Belvidere, ranked No. 8 in Class 5A, beat No. 6-ranked Lake Forest, 28-12.

Belvidere improved its record to 5-0 with convincing wins over Rockford Auburn (41-27) and Rockford East (42-14). The real test came at home against Rockford Boylan. The Bucs trailed until 4:13 left in the game when Aaron Latino, on fourth down and 9 at the 12, threw a halfback pass to Matt McClenthen for a 21-20 Belvidere victory.

After a 28-17 win over future NFL linebacker Carlos Polk and Guilford, the Bucs clinched their sixth outright title in eight years and seventh overall with a dominating 40-12 win over Freeport. The Bucs ran for 349 yards to Freeport’s 19. Belvidere finished the regular season with a 49-19 win over Harlem.

The Bucs opened the playoffs with a 30-23 come-from-behind win at East Moline thanks to a 46-yard TD run by reserve running back Jason Walker with 52 seconds left. In the next four playoff games, Belvidere’s defense gave up a mere 13 points starting with wins over Rock Island (27-0) and East St. Louis (26-13).

“I’ll never forget the East St. Louis game,” says Andy Curlee, defensive end and kicker. “By halftime, their offensive linemen were throwing up on the field. They thought they were going to come to the cornfields of Belvidere and walk over us. But we had great stamina and took it to them.”

Then it was a rematch with Boylan in front of 6,000 fans jammed into Titan Stadium. Players and coaches were nervous. Belvidere assistant coach Tom Sternquist even vomited. But Curlee kicked a second-quarter 25-yard field goal, the only field goal attempt the Bucs tried all year. “We didn’t kick field goals, we scored touchdowns,” says Curlee. A third-quarter touchdown run by Latino calmed the nerves on the Belvidere sideline as the Bucs advanced to state with a 9-0 win.

“It was the rivalry of all rivalries,” says Gardner, who didn’t start playing quarterback until eighth grade. “It was so much sweeter because it was Boylan.”

In the championship game against Bolingbrook, Belvidere suffocated the Raiders’ lethal running duo of Greg Williams, the Illinois player of the year, and Corey Day, who came into the game with a combined 3,244 yards rushing. The Bucs’ stifling defense held Williams and Day to 152 yards on the ground for the day.

Latino scored the game’s only points on a 7-yard run and linebacker Ron Barr, playing with a cast on his broken hand, set a title-game record with 19 tackles including 14 solos. “Our defense was amazing,” Gardner says. “As an offensive player it pains me to say this, but defense wins championships.”

“Coming into the game, everyone was talking about how Belvidere was going to get smoked,” says Dean Ervin. “The only ones who believed in the Bucs were the Belvidere parents, coaches and players. Belvidere was better than anyone realized.”

The man responsible for those great defenses was defensive coordinator Ralph McKenna, who helped coach 19 playoff teams. McKenna, who coached until he was 78, died in 2011. He was a 1996 Hall of Fame inductee for the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association and received the 2005 NIC-9 Service Award. “Players had great respect for Ralph, and to see his love for the game and to see that result in two championships made those seasons very special for those who played for him,” says Fred Brereton.

The 1993 championship season was also one that Julie Klotz won’t ever forget. She was a senior member of the dance team that also made it to nationals that year for the first time in school history.

“It was surreal,” she says. “It was the best senior year we could hope for. When we made it to the championship game, the dance team got invited to perform. Being on the field was the closest experience we could get to what it must have been like for the football team. There’s a high you get – hearing all the cheers in a stadium bigger than we were used to. It was also our first time performing on artificial turf. It was an amazing experience.”

Amy Soltow-North came home from college to watch her brother, Paul Soltow, play in the championship game. “I just remember how cold it was. We were all wearing layers of clothes,” she says. “The field was frozen.”

“Winning the championship ranks right up there as one of those special moments in life – like getting married or having children,” she adds. “Not everyone gets that experience. I don’t think it hit us that we were state champs until we came home for the victory celebration.”

Harder the Second Time Around

In 1994, Belvidere was hit hard by graduation and other defections, including Rob Anderson, who left football to concentrate on wrestling. The move paid off – the 125-pounder won a state title on the mat. But plenty of talent remained on the team. Rob Ruehl replaced Gardner at quarterback and Creighton took over for bruising fullback Miguel Martinez, who also graduated. And Latino was back for one more season.

The Bucs started off well with a win over Jefferson, thanks to Creighton, who picked up where Martinez left off, rushing 32 times for 213 yards and one touchdown.

But the road to a second title had its bumps. The Bucs, ranked No. 2 in Class 5A, had their 19-game winning streak snapped on Sept. 30 with a 14-13 loss at Boylan, the No. 1 ranked team. Belvidere lost again the next week, 14-7, to Freeport. But the Bucs didn’t lose again, finishing the regular season 7-2.

Belvidere saved their best football for the postseason. They beat Peoria Richwoods 27-7 in the opening round, followed by wins over Metamora (13-8), Sterling (29-14) and a come-from-behind win over Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin 14-6 in the Class 4A semifinals.

The title game was no contest, as Belvidere manhandled Morris, 28-0. The Bucs scored a touchdown in every quarter, including three by Creighton, who rushed for 154 yards on 27 carries. “We felt really good in practice the week leading up to the game; everything was clicking,” he says. “We were excited but we knew we still had a job to do.”

The Bucs finished the season 12-2 and brought a second trophy back to Belvidere.

“It was a real team effort,” says Pottinger. “There were no scholarship players on those teams, no big studs. But we had players like Leonard, Creighton, Barr and Latino who were the glue that kept the team together.”

“The biggest difference was Vern Pottinger,” says Ervin. “He was so innovative with the no huddle offense. And you think about his coaching staff – guys like Tom Sternquist, who got everyone fired up; Mike Hearn, Ralph McKenna and all the other guys who were so smart. That was an all-star coaching staff. They put in so much work during the week in practice, that it made the games seem easy.”

Pottinger coached the Bucs for 20 years before he stepped down in 1996 amid a controversy involving his eighth-grade son. The younger Pottinger was suspended for one semester for bringing a plastic toy gun to school as part of a Halloween costume.

“There’s no bitterness. I just didn’t like the situation and that’s why I left,” Pottinger says. “I never held anything against the people or the city. Belvidere was wonderful to us.”

Pottinger moved on to coach at Rice Lake High School in Rice Lake, Wis. For nine years, he led the Warriors to a 72-30 record, winning one conference title, eight playoff appearances, and a state runner-up finish in 2004. Pottinger comes back to Belvidere to visit a few times a year.

Pottinger finished his 20-year career with an overall record of 146-68; eight conference titles, 11 playoff berths, one state runner-up, and two state championships. He spoke at clinics around the country about the wishbone no-huddle offense and worked various football camps in the Midwest. He’s a member of several Halls of Fame including Sparta High School, Belvidere High School, Ripon College and the Illinois Football Coaches Association.

“Folks were a little anxious in the beginning,” says Curt Tobin, a longtime assistant on the Belvidere coaching staff. “I told Vern, ‘you are doing everything right. It just takes awhile.’ You could see it turn around in 1983. If we were down 14-7 in the middle of the fourth quarter, we knew we were still going to win. We weren’t sure how, but we’re going to win. That set the tone for years to come.”

Todd Lay and Rob Schildgen hoist the first of two trophies for the Bucs. (Illinois High School Association photo)

Todd Lay and Rob Schildgen hoist the first of two trophies for the Bucs. (Illinois High School Association photo)

A New Era

Mike Hearn took over for Pottinger. Hearn had big shoes to fill but did admirably well, going 74-32 over 10 seasons. He had a winning record all 10 years and made the playoffs in nine of them.

Hearn was named to the Illinois High School Hall of Fame and in 2018 was inducted to Belvidere’s Hall of Fame during an emotional ceremony. Two months later, Hearn lost his battle to cancer. “I give Mike Hearn so much credit,” says Ervin. “It’s tough to follow a legend like Pottinger, but he did a great job.”

“He was a great man,” adds Curlee. “Everyone respected the way Hearn carried himself as a person, coach and teacher.”
Success became harder for the Bucs to attain when Belvidere North opened in 2007, giving the town two high schools and leaving some diehard fans frustrated. Over the years, numbers have slowly dwindled on the Belvidere roster, which has resulted in just three wins in the past two years. The Bucs’ last winning season came in 2015.

But hope is on the way courtesy of a name from the past. Josh Sternquist was hired this summer to become the Bucs’ athletic director. Sternquist was a ball boy on the championship teams in which his father, Tom, was an assistant coach, and he was an All-Conference defensive back for the Bucs in 1998. The younger Sternquist has worked for several major college football programs, including Wisconsin and Illinois. “He will give 110 percent to this job,” says his father.

This Oct. 18, the Bucs will host Harlem in their final home game of the season.

It’s also the night the school will honor the 25th anniversary of the two championship teams and induct a new class into its Hall of Fame, including coaches from the championship teams – Curt Tobin, Darel Magnuson and Chuck Larson.

Once again, under a crisp fall night, there will be more hugs, firm handshakes, maybe some tears. And stories. Plenty of stories.

For one night, Bucs football will take center stage again. Just like those magical years that seem so long ago.

“For a little farming town in northern Illinois to win a state title was amazing,” Jeff Gardner says. “And then to win it again was unbelievable. We didn’t have one standout player. This was a great group of players and coaches who came together to do something special.”

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