There are 256 playoff qualifiers in the IHSA football postseason this year, and just about every one of them have some type of renewed hope.
Each of them earned a 10th game, a sign of endurance, accomplishment and perseverance.
Now the competition level takes a step up.
"There are a lot of schools who would like to be in our situation right now," said Dan Sharp, the head coach of 13-time state champion Joliet Catholic, a 5A playoff qualifier this season. "It's kind of exciting for us because we're playing some teams we've never played in school history."
Ah â€¦ the playoffs.
New opponents. New faces. New life.
Here's how each of the eight classes break down, and which teams have the best shots of hoisting a state title trophy at the end of November in Champaign:
2008 final: Maine South picked up its third state championship in school history, beating Hinsdale Central 41-21.
2009 outlook: Maine South, ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, is again the favorite this season, averaging 45.3 points per game. The Park Ridge team is the No. 1 seed in the lower bracket, playing Oak Park-River Forest in the first round.
Looming on Maine South's side of the bracket is 10-time state champion Mount Carmel, the No. 10 seed with a 6-3 record, Loyola Academy, the No. 3 seed with an 8-1 record, and Stevenson, the No. 2 seed with a 9-0 record.
Mount Carmel has the hardest regular season schedule out of all Class 8A teams as its opponents finished with a 55-26 record. Mount Carmel is at Chicago Simeon (7-2) in the first round, while Stevenson hosts New Trier (5-4).
Undefeated Fremd is the No. 1 seed in the top half of the bracket with a 9-0 record. Fremd is ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.
"We had a great regular season, but we have a very good team in Naperville North. They're not your average 5-4 team," said Fremd head coach Mike Donatucci. "I think when you get into the 8A level, you look at the 32 teams in there and every one belongs in there â€¦ Maine South, they are the people to beat."
Favorite: Maine South.
2008 final: East St. Louis won its seventh state championship in school history by beating Geneva 33-14.
2009 outlook: East St. Louis, the defending 7A champion, is the smallest school in the class this year because of petitioning the IHSA to play up in 7A rather than dropping to Class 6A,
It's hard to look past East St. Louis (7-2), the No. 2 seed in the upper bracket, as the favorite. It plays No. 7 Bradley Bourbonnais on Saturday at 2 p.m. and is ranked No. 1 by the AP in 7A.
Crystal Lake South (8-1) is the No. 3 seed in the lower bracket and could possibly see East St. Louis in a state finals match-up before the actual state finals, and Chicago St. Rita (7-2), the No. 4 seed in the upper bracket, also can't be overlooked.
St. Rita faces Plainfield North (7-2) in a good first-round scrap. Rita was the top-ranked team by the AP earlier in the season and has since fallen to No. 6.
"Class 7A is potentially the hardest class, and I think that our region or quadrant, whatever you call it, it's extremely hard to get out of as well," St. Rita head coach Todd Kusk said. "There are no easy games."
There are three undefeated teams in 7A, with Glenbard West, Chicago Bogan and Rockford Boylan entering unbeaten. Boylan is hurting the most with its star running back, Paul Barmore, lost for the rest of the season because of injury.
"We're going to have our work cut out for us," Boylan head coach Dan Appino said. "It's going to be difficult because our conference isn't as strong, I don't think, as some of the conferences we are lining up against at this point. We're playing well, but we're a little dinged up."
Favorite: East St. Louis.
2008 final: Sacred Heart-Griffin won its third state championship in school history by beating Lemont 37-15.
2009 outlook: There will be a new 6A state champion as Sacred Heart-Griffin dropped down to harass Class 5A this season.
That leaves two 2008 semifinalists as the favorites this season, Lemont (8-1), which is a No. 4 seed in the upper bracket, and Providence Catholic (7-2), which is the No. 2 seed in the upper bracket.
Providence is No. 1 in the AP rankings, while Lemont is No. 4.
"We know we are going to have our hands full. We are coming off a good season to win our conference, which we feel is a pretty good conference," Providence Catholic head coach Mark Coglianese said. "We're competing with a lot of 7A and 8A schools. We're really confident in those regards."
Cary-Grove, ranked No. 2 by the AP in 6A, is a quality team to watch out of the Fox Valley Conference's Valley Division.
Cary-Grove leads all 6A schools, averaging 44.3 points per game. C-G (9-0) is the No. 1 seed in the lower bracket after dropping down from 7A this season.
"How it's shaking up? We're playing an awful good team in St. Viators," Cary-Grove head coach Bruce Kay said. "I think this is a classic example where a computer program doesn't seed right. If we're the top seed in the bracket, this is an awful good team to begin with."
The only other 9-0 team in the class this season is Danville, which is No. 1 seed in the upper bracket and plays No. 16 Oak Lawn- Community in the first round. Danville is No. 3 in the AP poll.
Danville could run into trouble as early as the second round, facing the winner of Oak Lawn-Richards (8-1) and 2008 quarterfinalist Rock Island (8-1).
"We're aware that there are some awfully good teams in the bracket," Danville head coach B.J. Luke said. "Rock Island, Richards, Morgan Park, Lemont. We know we have a road to get through."
Favorite: Providence Catholic.
2008 final: Wheaton St. Francis won its first state championship in school history with a 49-35 shootout victory over Metamora.
2009 outlook: This bracket is loaded, especially in the upper bracket, which includes No. 1-seeded Sacred Heart-Griffin, a 9-0 team that just dropped down after winning the Class 6A state title in 2008.
Sacred Heart-Griffin leads all 5A schools by averaging 41.3 points per game this season and is the top-ranked team in 5A by the AP.
2008 quarterfinalist Washington (9-0) is a No. 2 seed in the playoffs and ranked No. 2 overall by the AP, 2008 semifinalist Cahokia (8-1) is a No. 3 seed and ranked No. 4 by the AP and 13-time state champion Joliet Catholic (7-2) is a No. 6 seed in the upper bracket and ranked No. 3 by the AP.
Then you've got two local teams, No. 7 seed Sterling (7-2) going against No. 10 seed La Salle-Peru (7-2) in the bracket as well. Sterling is tied for No. 8 in the 5A AP poll.
It's absolutely loaded.
"You've got your perennial powers with Joliet Catholic and the schools up north like Montini, St. Francis and all those guys," said Sacred Heart-Griffin head coach Ken Leonard, who once coached at Streator in the 1970s. "We're a pretty experienced playoff team, and I've been at this thing a long time. â€¦ With the flu going around, the fields just being a mess and the weather being terrible, a lot of things can happen."
How about this volatile first-round match-up: Defending champ Wheaton St. Francis (7-2) vs. Lombard Montini (5-4), who played each other in the quarterfinals a year ago.
St. Francis won that game, 28-14.
Lombard Montini has faced the toughest schedule this season. Its opponents finished with a 49-31 regular-season record. This result could be different.
"That's a very good match-up," Leonard said of the Montini/St. Francis game. "We played Montini in Week 1, and I tell you, I am shocked that they're 5-4. They've got a lot of talent. They lost a tough game to St. Francis. They lost to some great teams. I wouldn't be surprised if Montini turns the tables here."
Favorite: Sacred Heart-Griffin.
2008 final: In a shootout, Bloomington Central Catholic knocked off Aurora Christian and Division I quarterback Jordan Roberts 37-28 to win its fourth state title in school history.
2009 outlook: Welcome to Class 4A, Metamora. Your prize for dropping down from a brutal 5A bracket is a first-round game against defending 4A state champ Bloomington Central Catholic.
"You are starting off against the defending state champ, but the thing I like about the system that we have is that it's very objective. You don't have to get a room full of coaches to try to seed it out," said Metamora head coach Pat Ryan, whose Redbirds are ranked No. 4 in 4A by the AP. "With that being said, it's kind of ironic because us and Central Catholic just signed a two-year deal for an opening game after we've not played them since the 1980s."
This one will make for quite a preview for good things to come.
The Redbirds are 8-1 and the No. 7 seed in the upper bracket, while BCC (7-2) is the No. 7 seed. Metamora is the Class 5A runner-up, falling to Sacred Heart-Griffin one year ago in the state title game.
This year, its road will be just as difficult.
Rochester (9-0), which is averaging a ridiculous 48.7 points per game, is the No. 1 seed in the upper bracket and rated No. 1 in 4A by the AP, and St. Thomas More (9-0) is the No. 2 seed and ranked No. 8 by the AP.
Mount Zion (9-0), coached by former Princeton coach Dave Smith, is the No. 3 seed and ranked No. 3 by the AP, and Quincy Notre Dame, the No. 4 seed and ranked No. 2 by the AP, are the two other undefeated teams in the upper bracket.
The only unbeaten team in the lower bracket is No. 1 seed Chillicothe IVC, the NCIC Lincoln Division champion.
IVC is, in fact, playing Bishop McNamara in the first round after rumors that Bishop Mac's playoff points were incorrect and Sandwich could possibly take its spot.
"There was a rumor going around, but that's who we play," IVC head coach Tim Heinz said. "Bishop McNamara is not a pushover by any means. They have been to six state titles and won four of them. They are a playoff-rich team."
Possible can't miss second-round 4A matchups include: Mendota vs. Morris, IVC vs. Geneseo, Quincy Notre Dame vs. Effingham and Coal City vs. Richmond-Burton.
No one's looking ahead, though.
"We better just take that first game and play our best," Morris head coach George Dergo said. "As it is in the playoffs, you never know when you're toughest games are. As you get down the road, it doesn't get any easier."
2008 final: Illini West won its first state championship in school history with a 21-14 win over DuQuoin.
2009 outlook: A very balanced Illini West team returns after winning a state championship in 2008. The team from Carthage (9-0) is the No. 1 seed in the lower bracket and takes on Riverton (6-3) in the first round. Illini West is also ranked No. 1 in 3A by the AP.
"I can only speak for the (lower) half of the bracket, but it is as loaded as I have ever seen in all my years of coaching," Illini West head coach James Unruh said. "You've got some solid 9-0 teams, but you've also got some good teams that have 8-1, 72- 6-3 and 5-4 records also."
Current Sherrard head coach and former Bureau Valley head coach Jason Kirby would have to agree with Unruh.
The No. 3-seeded Tigers (8-1) face perennial playoff qualifier Sterling Newman in the first round with 2008 3A quarterfinalist Oregon, Rockford Christian (8-1), Class 4A runner-up Aurora Christian (6-3), Winnebago (7-2) and No. 1 seed Stillman Valley (9-0) above them in the bracket.
Wilmington, ranked No. 2 by the AP, is 9-0 and also in the lower bracket.
"With all the co-ops and the changing enrollments for who is involved in each class, it has become a class where you have some schools with 600 people all the way down to little town schools," Kirby said. "Certainly, when you start bringing in the Stillman Valleys and the Aurora Christians, teams of that nature, into 3A then you're really dealing with some teams that are pretty salty."
Should Sherrard come out on top, the hardware will be hard earned.
"I would say that the lower bracket is loaded," Kirby said. "If we're fortunate enough to get there, when I get on the stand, I am taking the trophy from them and walking away saying, â€˜We earned it. Get away from me.'"
Favorite: Illini West.
2008 finals: After finishing with a 5-4 record in the regular season, Immaculate Conception rolled to a 36-17 victory over Casey-Westfield in the title game.
2009 outlook: Well, Casey-Westfield is back. Immaculate Conception is not.
C-W, the No. 1 seed in the upper bracket, has been dismantling opponents this season entering this weekend's game against No. 16 Alton Marquette (5-4). The defending state champs didn't make the playoffs.
C-W is the only team out of 256 playoff teams to lead its class in both most points scored average (44.2 points per game) and fewest points allowed average (3.7 ppg.). C-W is currently ranked No. 2 in the AP polls with Morrison holding the No. 1 spot.
"As far as playoff pairings go, as we always know, it's not always the record of a team or the seeding that counts," C-W head coach Keith Sinclair said. "It's how good of competition they played against to get the record they achieved."
Casey-Westerfield's top competition in the upper bracket is Petersburg (PORTA), which is the No. 2 seed at 8-1.
In the lower bracket, Big Rivers Conference champion Morrison (9-0) is a battle-tested No. 1 seed after beating BRC powers Bureau Valley, Amboy/LaMoille and Sterling Newman during the regular season.
No. 10 Bureau Valley (7-2) probably had the toughest 2A draw, getting three-time state champion Mercer County (7-2) in the first round. BV is No. 7 in the latest AP poll, while Mercer County is No. 6. No. 2 seed Gibson City (8-1), No. 3 seed Amboy/LaMoille (8-1), No. 5 Orion (8-1) and No. 6 seed Annawan/Wethersfield (8-1) also will be tough.
"The good thing that we like is that we've been playing some pretty good football lately," Annawan-Wethersfield head coach Tom Little said. "We like the position that our kids have put themselves in."
2008 finals: Concord Triopia won its second state title in school history with a 42-7 victory over Stark County.
2009 outlook: Three teams enter the Class 1A postseason with undefeated records as Dakota, Brown County and Lexington enter the postseason with 9-0 records. Dakota is a No. 1 seed in one half of the lower bracket, while Lexington is the other No. 1 seed.
Brown County's offense is the most prolific in Class 1A, averaging a class-best 44 points per game this season. The Brown County line and backfield is a big reason for its success en route to a No. 2 ranking by the AP, one spot behind top-ranked Dakota.
"We have Nathan Goudschaal, who is an offensive and defensive lineman for us. He's been all-state honorable mention the last two years. He's a very good football player," Brown County head coach Tom Little said. "Then our fullback Joe Cross, he's our all-time leading rusher at Brown County. He's had a good season."
Lexington is the best 1A scoring defense, allowing 3.8 points per game out of the Heart of Illinois Conference.
Lexington is No. 3 in the AP poll.
"I feel like we're playing very well in a conference that is very competitive for the top spot each year," Lexington head coach Mike Castleman said. "We beat three 2A teams, Gibson City, Tri-Valley and Tremont, that we came across and then we beat a 3A team, Carlyle, so we feel very good. We have things pointed in the right direction. We just have to keep riding that momentum."
Lexington can also keep riding the legs of running back T.J. Stinde.
Stinde has totaled 2,094 rushing yards and 35 rushing touchdowns to go along with two more receiving touchdowns.
Jim Cogdal can be reached at 223-3200, ext. 139, or at email@example.com.