After graduating from Northern Illinois University in 1997 with a degree in physical education, Chris Thornton went looking for a job. Any job. Anywhere. His search landed him in Stockton, a farming community on the road between Freeport and Galena.
"I applied everywhere," said Thornton, a Minooka graduate of 1993. "This was my first job out of college. I knew little about Stockton. But I'm a hunter and fisherman and this is an area to do that type of stuff. So I decided to stay."
In his seventh year as Stockton's head football coach, the 38-year-old Thornton hasn't had much time to hunt or fish. In fact, he missed the entire deer season. "But I'm coaching a lot of football," he said.
Yes, indeed. His 13-0 team, which is averaging a whopping 51 points per game and hasn't scored fewer than 44 in any game, will meet Maroa-Forsyth (12-1) in the Class 1A championship game on Friday in Champaign.
It is Stockton's first trip to the state final since 2004, when then coach Brad Fox's team lost to Monmouth 21-14.
But Stockton has a rich football tradition, which Thornton has come to know and appreciate since his arrival. John O'Boyle was the winningest coach in state history when he retired in 1997. In 35 years, he posted a record of 279-74-1, won state titles in 1978 and 1991 and finished second in 1975 and 1977. He won 79 percent of his games. During one 13-year period, he lost only 13 games.
"Everybody knows who John O'Boyle is, what the Stockton tradition is all about," Thornton said. "He's still around town. He comes to all the games and I talk to him once a week. He loves to give me grief about blocking with your hands rather than your shoulder. He doesn't like new-fangled hand blocking."
O'Boyle probably doesn't favor Thornton's wishbone offense, either, but it is hard to argue with success. This year's team has three 1,000-yard rushers and a pair of Class 1A All-State selections, senior tailback T.J. Knutson and 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior centerdefensive end Steve Hawley.
Thornton is a bit surprised by his team's ability to score points in bushels but he isn't surprised to be 13-0 and packing for Champaign. He returned eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters from a 9-2 squad that lost to Freeport Aquin 27-12 in the second round last year.
"We set this as our goal for this year. I knew we would be good and we would be able to run the ball," he said. "We ran the wishbone and the I and the spread earlier. But when we lost our starting quarterback in Week 5 and a sophomore stepped in, we eased the offense back and stuck with running the wishbone."
Knutson has rushed for 2,400 yards and 40 touchdowns. Logan Staver, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior fullbacklinebacker, has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and also is the leading tackler. And junior Colton Broshous has rushed for 1,100 yards.
"Staver is the heart and soul of our team," Thornton said. "He is our leading tackler, our leader. Everybody looks to him. The offense starts with him. He gets the hard yards inside."
When senior quarterback Jordan Fox was injured and lost for the season, his sophomore brother Thomas stepped in. He was on the sophomore team but Thornton thought he was ready for the assignment. And he didn't want to break up his backfield by give the job to the backup, Broshous.
"Thomas manages the offense really well. He makes good decisions on the option. And he has thrown two touchdown passes in the last two weeks," Thornton said.
The offensive line has been very effective. It has been anchored by the two guards, 6-foot, 240-pound Jacob Weltzin and 6-foot-2, 230-pound Jacob Brunner.
On defense, Staver is ably supported by 6-foot-4, 220-pound end Ty Harmston.
In last Saturday's 51-14 rout of Stark County, Stockton amassed 530 yards. Knutson rushed for 185 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown burst. Staver rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Broshous rushed for 104 yards and one touchdown. Fox scored twice and threw a TD pass.
"Stockton tradition means a lot," Thornton said. "When the football team does well, the community does well. When they don't, things don't go quite as well. Everybody loves football. We have great support. Everybody is extremely excited about going back Downstate."
Afterward, maybe he'll find time to go hunting or fishing.