It's nothing out of the ordinary for the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin to have an impressive football season, but this year the drama came down to the final minutes. At the end of the regular season, North Central, Elmhurst and Wheaton all finished as co-champions.
For North Central it's the seventh in a row, for Elmhurst it's the first in more than three decades, for Wheaton it's not enough.
Despite all finishing with the same conference record and each team splitting the games between the other two, only Elmhurst and North Central will advance to the Division III playoffs. North Central won the CCIW tiebreaker with the highest point differential. Elmhurst received an at-large bid for the program's first trip to the playoffs.
In his fifth year as coach at Elmhurst, Tim Lester feels a special excitement for the playoffs. This year's seniors were the first recruiting class for Lester, and he has spent the entire year reminding them of how special they can be.
"I told the kids at the beginning of the year that every team is different and every team has a chance to leave a legacy," Lester said. "I think this year's team will be remembered."
The Bluejays finished the season with more than just a trip to the postseason. Elmhurst had nine players named to the all-conference team, headlined by offensive player of the year Scottie Williams. The senior running back is a four-time all-conference player and broke his own single-season conference record for rushing yards this year. Lester was also named the coach of the year.
Elmhurst will have a tough challenge in the first round. The team will head to Iowa to play undefeated Coe College. Lester knows his team will have its hands full, however, he said he hopes to use Elmhurst's difficult regular-season schedule to keep team confidence high as it searches for the upset.
As the conference automatic qualifier North Central finds itself in familiar territory but with unfamiliar company. The Cardinals were in sole possession of first place for much of the season until a late-season loss to Wheaton. Following the loss North Central needed help from Elmhurst just to claim a portion of the conference title.
The title doesn't make the playoffs any easier for North Central. The team will travel farther than ever before for a postseason game when it plays California Lutheran on the road.
With Elmhurst and North Central in the playoff bracket, Wheaton was the odd team out. Even after finishing with a share of the title, the Thunder's season is over. While excited over the conference championship, coach Mike Swider can't help but feel overlooked.
"The process of determining those 32 teams has some flaws," Swider said of the playoff bracket. "When you are a co-champion in one of the toughest conferences in the country, ranked in the top 15 and never lost a first-round playoff game ever, it's frustrating."
Swider's team had 13 all-conference players, including quarterback Jordan Roberts (Aurora Christian), and finished 8-2 overall.
The coach said it would be easy to cheer for his conference rivals in their playoff games.
"You always cheer for your conference," Swider said. "North Central deserves to go and Elmhurst deserves to go, I'm just saying we deserve to go along with them."
Both Elmhurst and North Central will play this Saturday for a chance to move on to the second round.