On a foggy evening in October of 2002, a pair of winless Illinois high school football teams would do battle in their final game of the season hoping to taste victory for the first and only time that fall. However, looking back through the lens of time, what happened in the months and years after that game would make both schools winners and losers.
Galva, Ill – For eight weeks of the high school football regular season in Illinois, teams had been battling it out to reach this point with at least six victories. Week nine and the final game before the playoffs start.
It’s always an exciting time each year as teams could cap off an undefeated season and take a top seed, or they could be one of the bubble teams looking to get that sixth win for an automatic birth, or a fifth, hoping to make a cutoff that involves tie breakers based on opponent’s wins.
On a foggy October evening in 2002 none of that was an option for either of the teams stepping on the field in a small town in western Illinois. There was something more at stake here. Pride. This was a championship game of a different caliber. These two schools, Galva and Union were fighting so they didn’t end their season winless.
It was a typical overcast Midwestern fall day, a fitting atmosphere for two winless teams to meet in. From sunrise to sunset there was almost no difference in the brightness in the gray sky. Even the temperature and wind couldn’t be bothered to change that day. The temps held steady at about 44 degrees, with a zero mph wind through much of game time. Just like the teams’ 0-8 records, there was little movement.
If you’ve ever driven through the Midwest on a Friday night in the fall, the lights from football fields act almost like a beacon directing you to gridiron games. Shinning for miles across the flatness. It was the GPS for visiting fans long before smart phones & in car navigation. This night however when the lights at Galva High School’s field were turned on, the glow through the fog hung over the nearby freshly harvest fields, but diminished a mile or so away. It was like even Mother Nature didn’t want people to know this game was going on.
The Yankees from Union High School most likely pulled into this dreary scene after an hour long bus ride from the town of Biggsville, about 60 miles southwest of Galva.
Both schools were part of the 12 team Lincoln Trail Conference, but played in different six team divisions. This was a cross over game so even with a win either team would still be in the respective cellar of their division. This game was a reverse championship.
As kickoff time approached, both teams would step onto the field, the Yankees in their red, white, and blue uniforms and the Wildcats in the maize and blue. A nod to the Swedish immigrants who were the first settlers in the area. There was just over 100 fans or more who settled into the stands that night in this town of 2,700.
The game had started pretty competitively. At the end of the first quarter the Wildcats would have a 6-0 lead, but the muddy conditions and cold dampness weren’t ideal conditions even for teams that were well polished. Both sides were exchanging punts as their offenses were having a hard time moving the ball.
Throughout the season the Wildcats offensively had managed to score over 8 points only one time before this game. They were never shutout. With exception to a 41-8 trouncing by Stark County, the Wildcats were competitive in most of their games. Including a 22-8 loss to the previous year’s 1A state champs Wethersfield, who would finish this season 11-2. One win away from returning to the state championship game in class 1A.
The Wildcats defense was good though. They played tough against most of the teams on their schedule, even the winning ones. They had been close to victory several times that season, losing by 8 points or less in all but four of their eight previous games. Two of which were only 9 & 10 point losses. They would finish the season being outscored by a total of only 41 points.
Union on the other had had only scored in two games the entire season and had its best defensive game when it gave up just 36 points to 2-7 Westmer. On the season Union had given up 47.4 points a game. While this would not be surprising for a school of Union’s size, possibly being one of the smaller schools on most opponents’ schedules, the Lincoln Trail Conference, where they played all their regular season games, was set up almost exclusively with class 1A teams, the smallest class in the state, that averaged between 200-300 students. So neither team was playing above their weight that year.
Like many small rural high schools in Illinois and other states, enrollments were continuing to shrink and the consolidation of schools was an almost annual occurrence in the state. For these smaller schools it’s was and is still not uncommon for teams to have almost half their players going both ways for most of the game and lacking a JV teams where younger players could get the skills they needed in real game situations. Other schools that still had problems drawing the number of players often formed co ops with a neighboring school for sports like football. Where you would see a combined squad made of two or more schools playing together under one banner.
Now back to the game. Galva ended the 1st quarter leading by six, thanks to an interceptions by Galva’s Alec Rabas that would stop a Union drive, but the Wildcats weren’t known for putting points on the board. So if you remember before where I said Galva only had a 41 point scoring gap between its opponents this season? Well a good chunk of that gap shrank because of what happened over the next two quarters and from what one junior running back did. Jared Wexell had helped put the Wildcats on the board in the first with a 39-yard run, but he would score twice more in the second on runs of 58 and 17-yards. As the Wildcats put up 27 points in the 2nd quarter as AJ Mertz & Justin Bates also scored on short runs.
Wexell would score five times by the end of this game. Twice more in the third on runs of 67 and 69-yards, as Galva would go on to win 45-0 and finish its season with their first victory and a 1-8 record. As a team the Wildcats rushed for over 300 yards that game, 288 of which Wexell put up himself. One or both of those totals was a conference and school rushing record at the time.
In a strange twist of fate, Union too would get a victory and finish 1-8, but after the season was over. Galva also picked up another win, putting them at 2-7. Turns out Wethersfield, the in-conference team and state champions from 2001, ran into a bit of controversy when the school’s booster club helped students purchase championships rings for that 2001 team. This was against IHSA’s rules, the state’s governing athletic body, which included a stipulation that athletes cannot receive something of more than $20 in value. Since a number of juniors from the 2001 team received rings, Wethersfield had to forfeit their entire 2002 season, helping Union avoid a winless season, at least in the record books.
While I’m pretty sure Union’s head coach Patrick Lynch did not get a belated Gatoraid bath, the state’s record books no longer have a winless season for Union in 2002. But like I said, the aftermath wasn’t all winning for both of these teams. While Galva H.S. is still its own school, it no longer has its own football team and now its players are part of a co op called Mid-County anchored around ROWVA High School in nearby Oneida. The team plays a home game or two in Galva each season, but the Wildcats name and the maize and blue colors of the town’s Swedish heritage have been replaced on the football field by the Cougars of blue, black and white.
In the record books Union High School wouldn’t win another game before consolidating with Southern High School out of Stronghurst to start the 2004-05 school year. While still located in Biggsville, the school would become known as West Central High School. This was Biggsville’s second time consolidating, as the original Biggsville High School, which had been open since at least 1898 became Union High School in 1960 after combing with Gladstone and Oquawka high schools to form Union High School.
The Lincoln Trail Conference itself saw consolidation too, at least for football. Losing Alexis and Union to school consolidation in 2004, and then combing with another conference to form a mega conference in 2006. In 2010 football returned to the Lincoln Trail Conference, but as of 2019 the once two division 12 team set up was gone, as more school consolidations and football co ops narrowed the number of schools fielding teams down to eight.
Across the board Illinois has less schools competing in football than it did in the past. At 513 eligible playoff teams in 2019, that is the lowest number the IHSA has listed in last ten years.
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A version of this story was reposted as an article on Lost Americana where it talks more about the rural school aspect of this story.