In their seven seasons under head football coach Jim Stiebel, the Mater Dei Knights have never missed the Illinois Class 4A playoffs.
None of those teams advanced as far as the Knights of 2015, state semifinalists despite entering the playoffs at 6-3 and seeded 10th in their 16-team bracket.
Is this really the best team Stiebel has coached?
"It certainly feels like it," he said, after some careful consideration. "This team is really different because there’s been such a progression from the start until now.”
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That question wouldn't have been given a second thought on Sept. 11. The Knights fell to 1-2 with a sound 68-46 beating at the hands of those same Crusaders they'll face in the state semifinals Saturday.
This team is really different because there’s been such a progression from the start until now.
Jim Stiebel, Mater Dei head football coach
The loss stands as the red-letter date on the Mater Dei schedule because of the changes it prompted and the success that’s resulted.
"We were 1-2, we had to do something," Stiebel said. "There were adjustments that had to be made or we weren't going to see the playoffs. The kids believed in the changes and bought into what we were telling them.”
The Knights have wanted a rematch with Althoff ever since. They’ll get it with advancement to the 4A state championship on the line.
"We have drastically improved since Week 3," said senior linebacker Sam Krebs. "There is a little rivalry between the teams and I'm really looking forward to lining up with them again and giving it all we have."
There are a few specific areas of measurable improvement that Stiebel says has gotten the Knights to this point in the season. All originated with the loss to Althoff.
Even factoring in a shutout win over Effingham in the season opener, the Mater Dei defense was surrendering 34 points per game after Week 3. In its two losses, that average was 51.5 points.
The issue? The Knights were just too slow.
"At one point we had Althoff on a third-and-long," Stiebel said. "We sent everybody after him but just weren't fast enough to catch him."
That meant some players on the offense had to be called to double duty.
We made some changes on defense personnel-wise, but the confidence we’ve built has played as big a role as anything.
Sam Krebs, Mater Dei senior defensive end
Running back Brady Rakers (64 talkes, 4 sacks) took time at outside linebacker as Jacob Dumstorff (55 tackles, interception), Jordan Kampwerth (28 tackles, fumble recovery) and Trever Johnson (42 tackles, two interceptions) shifted to an effective platoon on the inside.
Wide receivers Josh Haberer and Brendan Timmermann also take some time on the defense side of the ball as well and, between them, have intercepted three passes.
Freshman Nic Seelhoeffer, a fullback, was Mater Dei's leading tackler in its last two playoff victories over Columbia and Taylorville.
Senior end Sam Krebs' spot as anchor of the defensive line was never was never in doubt, but he said the changes in the secondary helped him do his job a little better. He currently has a team-high 86 tackles to go with three fumble recoveries.
"We have drastically improved since week 3. We made some changes on defense personnel-wise, but the confidence we've built has played as big a role as anything," Krebs said. "We know we can complete with pretty much any team out there."
Althoff's run-pass option didn't just influence the changes Stiebel made with the Knights' defense. It prompted alterations to the offensive scheme too.
"They found a flaw in our defense. So what did we do?” Stiebel said. “We started to run it too.”
There was a lot to learn. The linemen alone had to figure out when they could block down field and when they had to stay in pass-block mode. It wasn't easy for a junior quarterback making his fourth career start, either.
“I went from one option to five on every play,” Colin Schuetz said.
But it helped two ways: It got the Knights multitude of play makers involved in every play and it helped the defense learn to defend it.
"I figured the best way to be able to defend it was by running it against our defense," Stiebel said. "Our defense has seen it every week and every day, every practice since week 3. That obviously has fixed our defense."
Schuetz completed just 11 of 28 pass attempts and was intercepted twice in a week 2 loss to Williamsville. Stiebel said he considered making a change before the Althoff game.
"We were talking about shuffling the deck a little bit because he was getting so nervous," Stiebel said. "Then something just clicked. I can't put my finger on it other than to say let himself get lost in the game. He stopped worrying about what was going on around him and he was focusing and slowing the game down in his head."
I felt people were looking at me a little different and saying ‘hey, this kid can play.’ I started to feel that myself.
Colin Schuetz, Mater Dei junior quarterback on what changed in Week 3
Schuetz said the "click" happened in the first quarter of the Althoff game after a 36-yard touchdown pass to Heberer and a 70-yard bomb to Timmermann.
"I felt people were looking at me a little different and saying 'hey, this kid can play,'" he said. “I started to feel that myself.”
Schuetz has so far completed 56 percent of his 313 attempts for 2,719 yards and 31 touchdowns against just nine interceptions.
Stiebel said any doubts he had about the Knights in the preseason originated with the offensive line. With only a few adjustments, the unit has developed beyond the coach's expectations.
"Coming in we thought the line was our weakness," Stiebel said. "Now it's our strength."
Left tackle Connor Thole, left guard Nolan Seelhoeffer and center Jason Martz all are three-year starters. Senior Nathan Peltes earned the starting job at right guard after Week 3, while Trent Feldmann held tight to his job as right tackle.
Grant Pollmann adds depth at all five positions.
Coming in we thought the line was our weakness. Now it’s our strength.
Jim Stiebel, Mater Dei head football coach
“Our technique over time has gotten much better — we’re coming off the ball faster and lower and that makes a difference,” Martz said. “Other than that, we’ve gelled and we take a lot of pride in making our backfield guys look good.”
The unit may have reached its peak in last week's 42-20 quarterfinal win over a physical Taylorville defense had allowed opponents just 10 points per game. The Knights didn't have a single turnover in the win and lost yardage on just two offensive plays.
"On film, you won't find a more intimidating defense than the one we just faced in Taylorville," Stiebel said. “We matched them with physicality, with speed, and with temperament. The guys really understood what they had to do."