DEKALB, Ill. -- When Matt Weckler became head football coach at DeKalb (Ill.) High School, the expectations weren’t where they are now.
It was a program that had faced futility for the past two decades, having only made one playoff appearance in that span. The team had seen two coaches move in and out in the prior two years, and was without a permanent coach for eight months until Weckler was hired in February.
On Friday night, the Barbs made history—doing so in dramatic fashion. A 46-41 win over rival Rochelle was DeKalb’s fifth of the season, putting it in the playoffs for just the second time in 20 years.
Not long after the game, as the harsh, cold winds blew through the field, Weckler gathered his team for an emotional postgame huddle. The first-year coach expressed pride in his players. They bought in to their young, enthusiastic leader and began paving a new path for the program.
“With this group of guys, it was more so them believing in themselves and what we’re doing, and less about what we actually did,” Weckler said after the victory.
Before Weckler, this was a DeKalb team desperate for a leader. His arrival helped DeKalb form an identity, something it had lacked. Above all, he made the Barbs believe they can win.
“We’ve been through a lot these past three years—three different head coaches,” said star junior running back Dre Brown. “We just kept battling. I’m so proud of my team.”
An offense was built around Brown, a four-star prospect with a flurry of college interest. The Barbs’ workhorse paced the offense through its historic season. Brown’s performance on Friday was one of his most memorable yet.
Brown ran for 203 yards and three touchdowns, a gutsy effort that was just enough for a nailbiter victory.
It came down to the final minutes, with DeKalb holding a five-point lead and Rochelle driving downfield. Brown even admitted to having nerves on the sidelines as the Barbs’ defense looked for the playoff-clinching stop. Then, it happened.
An errant pass went to the hands of linebacker Tanner Pumphrey. As the senior evaded tacklers while sprinting downfield, the DeKalb sidelines erupted with jubilance. Months of work and belief, they paid off in that moment. The Barbs were in the playoffs.
“The emotions are crazy,” Brown said with a smile. “DeKalb football doesn’t make the playoffs very often. To say that we’re one of the classes that did it, it’s huge. We’re just going to keep feeding off it and building this program.”
When Weckler took over the DeKalb program, he knew all about the rising star at running back. Brown would be a leader, both in the locker room and on the field. The coach believed in his young player.
“Good players make coaches look good,” Weckler said. “And it’s honest.”
Brown represents the identity of this DeKalb team, the one Weckler worked to build from day one. On each play-action fake, he sprints through the line, selling it to the fullest. This play worked for two touchdown runs from senior quarterback Jack Sauter, who walked in untouched each time. Brown fights for each extra yard on his carries. The Barbs feed off his effort.
“It’s that added little emphasis and power, and it’s his confidence that brings everyone up,” Weckler said.
The dream season continues just 60 miles west of Chicago. The Barbs’ season will continue, with a second-seeded Batavia team posing the first playoff challenge.
With a newfound identity built into a once-hollow program, the Barbs are more than confident. They don’t want this storied season to end.
“Anything can happen in the playoffs,” Brown said. “After this high win, we’re ready to play anybody.”