Illinois College gets new life

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Michael Bates has stepped in at quarterback as a freshman and has helped Illinois College to its first-ever playoff bid.
Illinois College athletics photo

With coach Garrett Campbell at a Midwest Conference coaches meeting in Beloit, Wis. and a bunch of teammates at home for the weekend, a handful of Illinois College faithful joined senior wide receiver Brock Thompson at his place on campus to watch the Division III tournament draw.
The Blueboys finished the season 9-1, but second to the Monmouth Fighting Scots in the MWC. Illinois College had never been ranked and never even played a ranked team this season. The conference had never been awarded an at-large bid to the playoffs, but Thompson and a few of his teammates still believed and felt compelled to see for themselves if Illinois College’s name would be called.
“Some guys didn’t want the whole team to come together because they thought what if we didn’t get in?” Thompson said about last Sunday evening. “That would have been a letdown. I will never forget the exuberance that went through my body when I saw our name come across the board against Wabash. A lot of people didn’t think we’d make it or didn’t deserve it. Someone on that committee had to think we were good enough. We can’t wait to play.”
In a season of firsts and improbable finishes for Illinois College, the Blueboys added yet one more superlative – the first Illinois College team to compete for a Division III national championship in football.
“It has definitely created a buzz around campus and on the team,” said freshman quarterback Michael Bates, who as much as anyone made a difference for the Blueboys this season “I’m just here to let the seniors and upperclassmen take me along for the ride. It’s been a memorable season and I’m enjoying every chance I get. I think it’s a tribute to our work ethic and coach Campbell is an awesome person.”
Campbell was returning from the coaches meeting with a football and volleyball player when their cell phones lit up almost simultaneously. The word had even found them on a road back to Jacksonville, Ill.
“It was kind of crazy,” Campbell said of the flood of phone calls and text messages he and his passengers were receiving after the announcement. “We had to call a quick team meeting. We only had half the team on campus there because I gave them the whole weekend off. The team was elated and I was too.”

The team had to request special permission from the conference to even hold practices last week, during their Week 11 bye.

Illinois College’s nine wins is a school record. Its six-game win streak is the best for the Blueboys in three decades. But Campbell and the IC players said they don’t want to give the impression they are just happy to be in the playoffs. When the Blueboys lineup against favorite and No. 9-ranked Wabash on Saturday, Campbell said he is going to like his team’s chances.
“I explained to our players that Wabash is a very good football team but so are we,” Campbell said. “We had to scramble a little bit Sunday night to get things together for this week but we’re ready. I like our matchups across the board offensively and defensively. We’re 5-0 on road and we’ve talked about if we want to win a conference championship and do well in the playoffs we have to win on the road, so that’s been a battle cry for us all season.”

In fact, this moment has been year in the making for Illinois College. Last year, the Blueboys were tied for first place in the MWC with a 5-2 and would have earned the conference’s automatic bid if it had won its last two games. The Blueboys, though, lost to Grinnell and Beloit – both on the road – to finish the season at .500 overall.
“That really left a bad taste in our mouth,” Thompson said of the losses. “We would have been in the playoffs last year, but those losses really lit a fire under our butts. Playing for something late in the year is a good thing. Those losses were on our mind this season and it helped us.”
That edge came in handy in Illinois College’s last road game of the regular season against Ripon. Bates engineered the final drive and threw a touchdown pass with 1:40 left in the contest for Blueboys 34-33 victory.
Bates passed for 2,936 yards this year as a freshman, connecting on 28 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He completed 241 of 389 passes. Thompson caught 12 of those touchdowns and averaged nearly 90 yards receiving a game. Running back Cecil Brimmage averaged 106.2 yards per game to complement the passing game. Bates immediately credited the offensive line for his success this season.
“I knew I would have a good offensive line,” Bates said. “Whenever you go into a game and have the offensive line we have, you know they will set up things. All of the yards go to them. I think everyone on the offensive side of the ball would agree.”
Campbell said the maturity of Bates, the son of a high school football coach, helped galvanize a Blueboys offense that didn’t know who their starting quarterback would be in August.
“To call him a special football player would not do him justice,” Campbell said. “He’s a special young man. I coached a lot of good quarterbacks and he’s got one of the most commanding presences. He has a personality that attracts good people and raises everyone up to another level. He has really played this year on instinct more so than knowledge. It’s been fun to be around him.”
Bates will face his biggest challenge yet against a traditionally strong and physical Wabash defense. The Little Giants will bring a balanced offensive attack and are capable of chewing large amounts of time off the game clock.
And then, there are still the doubts and whispers about if Illinois College deserved an at-large bid when other nationally ranked teams were forced to hang up their equipment this week. Campbell is no stranger to these parts. He was the offensive coordinator at Carthage during the Redmen 2004 run that saw them surprise doubters by knocking off two teams on the road in the playoffs before losing to Mount Union in the national quarterfinals.
“I don’t know if we’re carrying the torch for anybody, but as long as we play the way we’re capable of playing and to the best of our ability, we’ll show people what we’re all about on Saturday,” Campbell said. “I know how hard it is to win games. I’m excited, nervous and everything rolled into one. It’s better than not having a reason to practice, I can tell you that.”

Illinois College will have no shortage of believers this time around.

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss
1999-2000 columnist: Don Stoner

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