Althoff was struggling at 3-3 earlier this season and began the state football playoffs as a No. 15 seed with a 6-3 record.
Four wins later --one of which needed a last-second 40-yard field goal by a freshman that bounced over the crossbar -- the Crusaders (10-3) are poised for a shot at the school's fourth state championship.
They face a rough matchup against Mercer County (13-0), the state's top-ranked Class 2A team with an all-state quarterback known for his production, accuracy and ability to create offense in a hurry.
Game time is 1 p.m. Friday in Champaign.
"It's been a nice journey, but you want to play your best game in your last game," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "We want to get everything down, avoid mistakes and play a solid game. We still feel like our best game is our there for us to be played.
"Why not let it be played this last game?"
In the playoffs, Althoff has ended unbeaten seasons by Chester, Casey-Westfield and Camp Point Central-Southeastern. The Crusaders must take down another unbeaten today if they want to walk off the field as state champs.
Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel likes his team's chances, but admits the challenge level is high.
"Usually in the playoffs you have some sort of familiarity, but we didn't even see them on film until we were watching them on the computer," Zunkel said of the Crusaders. "To see a true spread team, shotgun (offense) with three, four or five wide sometimes... it's a challenge for us, but we're looking forward to it.
"Our kids have responded all year."
Mercer County High, formerly known as Aledo, is 4 1/2 hours from Belleville near Galesburg in west central Illinois.
Like Althoff, Mercer County has three state football titles. They all were won as Aledo High before consolidation in 2009, but the town has been a stronghold of football success for decades.
Former Aledo coach Cullen Walter compiled a 113-22 record with three state titles in 1998, 2001 and 2002. His teams also finished second in 2005 and 2006.
"Tradition runs deep in this town and being in the state finals again is an awesome experience," said Zunkel, who grew up in Chicago. "Me coming from there out to rural Aledo has really been a good experience. It's a football town and we love it here. It's what we do best."
What the Golden Eagles have done best this season is move the ball through the air with 6-foot-5, 200-pound all-state quarterback Tanner Matlick.
The three-year starter, has a big arm and is elusive as well. Matlick has completed 114-of-183 passes for 21 TDs and only three interceptions, with two of the three picks came in the playoff opener.
"We think the world of him," Zunkel said. "He's academic all-state too, so he takes care of that side of things as well. He really makes us go, he can put the ball in a lot of different places.
"He's a special kid. He's smart enough to know what to do with the ball."
That could be a problem for an Althoff team that has been hurt at times by the few passing teams on its schedule.
"He's 6-5 and 200 pounds. He reads zones well and can put it wherever he wants to put it," Turner said of Matlick. "We've got to be aware of him all the time because if his protection breaks down, he's very capable of running with it. He's one of the best we've faced this year."
There should be no shortage of offense in this game.
Mercer County averages 43.5 points, has 4,718 total yards and has scored at least 25 points in every game. The Golden Eagles has surpassed 40 points seven times, including wins of 62-0 and 80-0.
Althoff's offense hasn't been as prolific since it averages 26.1 points, but the Crusaders also have gone over 4,000 yards in total offense with 4,274 total yards.
Junior quarterback Eric Mertens has thrown for 2,403 yards and 21 TDs out of a spread-shotgun offense and the Crusaders have run for 1,871 yards led by Dennis Jackson's 984 yards and 12 TDs.
Zunkel said Althoff's size and speed is different is not something the Golden Eagles typically face.
"They're big and they're physical," Zunkel said. "Their backs are just dynamic athletes and need to be accounted for on the field at all times or else they'll burn you. They're the best team we've seen on film all year long."
The key for Althoff, which has been tough to run on throughout the playoffs, may be getting as much pressure on Matlick as possible.
"Their passing attack is very disciplined and the strength of our defense has been the run game," Turner said, "but we believe strongly in how good our pass defense can be, also."
Turner said the Crusaders also need to avoid the costly turnovers and penalties that continue to occur.
"We've moved the ball well and we've put up points," Turner said. "We just want that one game where everything clicks the whole game. We're very capable of it and we show a lot of spurts of doing a lot of good things. We think we could be very dangerous once that happens."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.