Danny Appino said he was excited to play his senior season of football at Rockford Boylan for his uncle, coach Dan Appino, who had guided the Titans to back-to-back 14-0 state championships.
But the 5-foot-7, 158-pound slotback was as surprised as everyone outside the coach's immediate family when he opted to leave Boylan last spring to become the head coach at Rockford Auburn.
"It was a surprise to me," Danny Appino said. "The family knew. Rumors were going around. Then he announced his decision to the team. But coach (John) Cacciatore has done a nice job and we love playing for him."
Appino's sudden departure caught Cacciatore by surprise, too. He appeared to be a fixture at Boylan, like former football coach Bill Thumm and basketball coach Steve Goers. In 10 years, Appino's teams were 97-19 with only three losses in the last five years.
A Boylan graduate of 1992, Cacciatore had served as freshman coach for six years and sophomore coach until he was hired to succeed Appino this year. He seemed to be content being an assistant in a program that has experienced only one losing season since 1982 and has failed to qualify for the state playoff only once in the last 22 years.
"You like to think you are ready. Then you see how enormous the job is," Cacciatore said. "I have great appreciation for what coach Appino did. Coaching at the freshman and sophomore level isn't like the varsity.
"Coaching is great, my favorite part of the job. But the other administrative parts that go with it...well, there are different demands at that level. It's the other things that open your eyes to how big a job it is."
Cacciatore, 38, came prepared for the task. Before joining Appino's staff, he played for legendary coaches Gordie Gillespie and Dan Sharp at College of St. Francis in Joliet.
"I wasn't thinking about taking the job when Appino left," he said. "There was a point in my career where I thought I would never be a head coach. But there was a point when I was playing for Bill Thumm when I thought I wanted to be a head coach. Was I ready at age 38? If you don't do it now, I said to myself, are you walking away from your biggest opportunity ever?"
He deliberated for three days, had discussions with his wife and two young children, then decided to apply for the job. School officials chose not to look beyond the school itself for a successor. Seven days later, Cacciatore was hired. He still teaches four classes of U.S. History.
"I'd be lying if I said pressure was nothing here," he said. "You know it going in, even at the sophomore level. You feel there is a need to live up to what the varsity is doing. Dan set a standard. One advantage I had was not knowing what I didn't know and just coach the best way I know how. Winning has made it easier.
"Coming off two 14-0 seasons and two state titles, I inherited a group of seniors that when I had them as sophomores went undefeated. A dozen of them went to the varsity and contributed to our playoff run in 2010. They have been a successful group since they walked into the school."
Thirty-eight victories in a row and counting. Rockford Boylan still has a long way to go before it approaches the all-time state record of 64 set by Pittsfield in 1966-73. Think of it, nine unbeaten seasons in a row. In fact, five schools have posted longer winning streaks than Boylan.
Last Saturday, the Titans rallied from an early 10-0 deficit to oust Jacobs 28-10 in the first round of the Class 7A playoff. Demarcus Vines scored on a 39-yard run and a 75-yard punt return, safety Matthew Johnson recorded his 12th and 13th interceptions of the season and quarterback Brock Stull threw a 34-yard TD pass to Luke Salamone.
Boylan (10-0) will host Fenwick (8-2) on Saturday in the second round.
Danny Appino and Peter Cimino don't have time to sort out the numbers or examine the record book. It is enough for the two Boylan seniors to bask in the realization that they have never played in a losing game in four years of high school competition. And the thought of playing on three 14-0 state championship teams in a row boggles their minds.
Appino and Cimino are used to Cacciatore. They played on his unbeaten sophomore team. "A lot of things he does are unique, some quirks, but we've had time to adjust. We're getting used to his style. Coach Appino went to a spread offense. Coach Cacciatore has a wing T style. He knows his football," Danny said.
"We have a lot to play for. It makes us keep working hard. We have a lot of motivation. You don't want to be on the team that loses a game. Growing up, we knew about the Boylan tradition. We're excited to work at it and be a part of it. The whole community works at it."
This team may not be as glitzy as last year's squad, which featured All-State defensive lineman Dean Lowry, now a freshman standout at Northwestern, and running back Tyreis Thomas. But Cacciatore's first squad is averaging 43.4 points per game and has allowed only 89. Only one opponent has scored more than two touchdowns and six have been limited to no more than one.
"We have no Dean Lowrys or Tyreis Thomases. We have Peter Cimino, Demarcus Vines and Zackary Matthews," Danny Appino said. "We are smaller but faster. It makes us work hard. Our goal has been the same every year on the varsity--take one week at a time, win conference and do well in the playoff. We are where I expected us to be. It's been a fun year so far and we're looking forward to the postseason."
At Boylan, defense is the name of the game. Cacciatore is the offensive play-caller but defensive coordinator Chris Rozanski, who has been at Boylan for 10 years, calls the shot for the 3-3-5 defense.
"I'm the offensive play-caller but defense is the first priority," Cacciatore said. "There is nothing worse than watching a team ground the ball down your throat. I coach like I'm down by 21 points. The strength of our program is we are all sold on the system. If it isn't broke, don't fix it.
"What have I learned? I feel the most important thing to this point is, while I have more time to do things on offense, I spend time on defense trying to figure out how to continue to stop teams. The better we get on defense, the more productive we are on offense. The defense is what allows the offense to play on a shorter field."
The defense is anchored by 5-foot-11, 190-pound free safety Peter Cimino, safetu Matthew Johnson, 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior middle linebacker Zackary Mathews, 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior linebacker Ryan Johnson and 6-foot, 190-pound senior linebacker Ty Sharp, nephew of Joliet Catholic coach Dan Sharp. Cacciatore describes Mathews as "the backbone of what we do."
The offense features 5-foot-9, 160-pound senior running back Demarcus Vines, who has rushed for over 800 yards and 20 touchdowns, 6-foot-3, 165-pound junior quarterback Brock Stull, who has passed for 600 yards, 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior tackle Joe Fehrle, 6-foot- 220-pound tackle Nick Verstraete and 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior center Sam Bellone.
Another plus is senior kickerpunter Sean Slattery.
"We're still looking for the perfect game when we can take the ball and get points on every possession," Cacciatore said.
"Are we better than the last two teams? After the first one, we all looking around and said: 'Wow. I can't believe what we did.' Then we won again and we didn't think we were so good. Now we're at the same place. How will we do with this group of guys? All the pieces have fallen into place for the titles to happen."
"Each team has its own special stamp," Cimino said. "My brother Frank was the quarterback on the 2010 team. Then there was Lowry and Thomas. Now it's Vines and Appino and Mathews. We focus on team speed on defense. We play physical and smart. It's a very close knit group.
"We've never lost a game in high school. We try not to think about it. We try not to think about the streak. We dont want to jinx ourselves. People outside the team bring it up. 'You're the team that hasn't lost,' they say. No one has ever done it. We just always try to be positive."