When you look at the rivalry of the Stockton Blackhawks and Aquin Bulldogs the first thing you see is their playoff history. Both schools have combined for 9 state final game appearances and 5 state championships. These two schools also have the 1st and 3rd most playoff appearances in the NUIC history, and Stockton enters the 2017 1A playoffs with the most playoff appearances at 31, while Aquin enters with the 5th most playoff appearances at 26.
Stockton advanced to the 2nd round last week after taking down Cuba North Fulton 36-6, while the Bulldogs made their way to the 2nd round in the waning seconds of their game with Fisher in a nail biter 30-27.
This rivalry dates back a long time as well, as both teams have been competitors in the old NWIC up until it merged with the Upstate Illini Conference to form the 3 division Upstate Illini Conference, at which point Stockton and Aquin were separated in the divisions, but only went 2 years with out facing each other, 1999 and 2000. Since 2001, the Blackhawks and Bulldogs have met every year, and in 2006 reunited in the NUIC Upstate Conference as rivals once again.
This will be the 3rd time these two teams meet in the playoffs, with all of them coming in 2nd round games. In 2002, Aquin swept the week 1 and playoff game as they beat Stockton 42-40 and then sent them home in the playoffs 46-20. Their paths would cross again in 2011, as Stockton won the regular season game 24-17, but it was Aquin reversing the score 2 weeks later pulling off a 27-12 win and advancing to the semifinals.
When asked if he saw an advantage with facing Stockton for a second time in 3 weeks, Aquin Coach Troy Barr responded, " Not really. Stockton is very disciplined and they are coached so well that I know this week's game will not mirror the last. They will likely throw new things at us whether it be formations on offense or new defensive sets. It will be critical for us to take the game one play at a time. I have tried to teach the kids we cannot control the past or look ahead, but focus on their job every play, one at a time."
I asked Stockton Head Coach Jesse Snyder what his biggest concerns were facing Aquin a 2nd time around, and he stated, "Aquin has such big play capability. Defensively we have to take away the big play. They may pick some yardage, but we cannot allow big plays for scores. Offensively we have to execute what we do. We have to control the ball and finish our drives."
Stockton won this match-up just 3 weeks ago, 16-14 to stake claim to the Upstate Conference Crown outright, winning their 6th title in 7 seasons. The first game took place on a rainy night, in which a combination of a slow Aquin start, combined with what seemed to be a favorable field condition for Stockton in the 1st half resulted in the Blackhawks jumping out to a 16-0 lead and holding on in the 2nd half for the 2 point victory.
I asked Coach Snyder if he would change anything up based on what looks like could be better field conditions this week, as he replied, "You know I understand that field conditions play factor in games, but I think those conditions affect a team like us as well. Really what it comes down to is being the most disciplined and physical team on the field. Defensively we have to have great pursuit, tackle well, and create takeaways. Offensively we have to have great ball security and finish our drives for scores. On any given day the team that is the most disciplined, takes care of the ball, and has the fewest mistakes comes out on top. That's our goal."
When confronted about how important it is to get off to a quick start Saturday, Coach Barr replied, "When playing any very good team, especially in the playoffs, it is critical that any team comes out focused and gives their best effort from the first play to the last. I think more than anything this year our slow starts have been the inability for us to get out of our own way at times. We had 90 yards in penalties last week, and if that carry's over this week it will be our last week of football in 2017. We need to play error free football from the start and make adjustments to what Stockton does early in the game to be successful."
Both teams have weapons, but it is Aquin who brought back the most as they still have their area leading QB Jonah Diemer, combined with leading area receivers Bryce Carlson and Zac Cummins, with the running ability of Cole Luedeking, Cole Stykel, and Keegan Koester. When asked who needs to have the biggest impact for the Bulldogs to come away with the win Saturday Coach Barr was quick to point to a team effort. "This will be cliché, but I need all 11 on the field to make an impact this week if we hope to compete. We have not played well on special teams this year and if there is any area we need to see improvement on or make the biggest impact, it is the 11 kids on any of my special teams this week."
This is not new territory for Coach Snyder, or his coaching staff, but together this season has been their first experience together. The Blackhawks lost a lot of talent off last year's 9-1 team, and with that came a lot of questions on where the Blackhawks would be in 2017 amid a new coach, scheme, and a lot of new starters. When asked about the questions surrounding his team coming into the season, and if he is where they thought they would be, Coach Snyder answered, "I'm sure people around here had a lot of questions. New group of kids, new coach, and new system. As a new coach it's important to listen to your staff's thoughts and opinions. They have worked with the kids for three years now, and have a pretty good idea about their strengths. After evaluating the kids throughout the summer and into camp and pre-season practices, I truly believed that we had every opportunity to be where we are now." He would also go on to add, "The fact that we are here is a credit to our kids and coaching staff. Our guys have put in the work this season and continue to improve each week. When I look at where we were week 1 to where we are now, it's amazing how we have grown as a team."
There is definitely a lot of pride and history between these two programs, and come Saturday afternoon at John O'Boyle Field around 1 pm you will see it all unfold for yet another chapter in this history rich rivalry between the Blackhawks and Bulldogs. The winner will advance to the quarterfinals where they will play the winner of Lena-Winslow and Milledgeville.
Stockton Blackhawks 8-2
Conference: NUIC Upstate
State Titles: 1978, 1991
State Runner-Up: 1975, 1977, 2004, 2012
Trips to Playoffs: 31
Points/Game For: 29
Points/Game Against: 13
Aquin Bulldogs 8-2
Conference: NUIC Upstate
State Titles: 1981, 1986, 2005
Trips to Playoffs: 26
Points/Game For: 30
Points/Game Against: 15
Massey - Aquin 21 Stockton 20
Calpreps - Stockton 21 Aquin 20