Aurora Christian’s emergence as a championship football program is a story of baby steps and big-boy steps. The chance for another of the latter comes Friday.
Unless you’ve followed the Eagles closely during coach Don Beebe’s nine-year tenure, the significance of finally beating programs with modest profiles such as Chicago Christian and Walther Lutheran is easily lost. Beebe, though, refers to those milestones almost reverently when recalling the trajectory that led to last year’s IHSA Class 3A state championship season.
If those feats were subtle steps on the Eagles’ path to prominence, defeating Driscoll – a football dynasty before the school closed – in the 2008 Class 4A quarterfinals was a landmark moment in announcing Aurora Christian as an elite football program.
Friday’s matchup with three-time defending Class 5A state champion Montini presents a similar showcase for the Eagles to command the admiration of the wider, Chicago area football audience. And the Eagles know it.
“Montini is that team,” Beebe said.
Montini has pulverized the Eagles by a cumulative score of 138-22 in a trio of thrashings the past three seasons. That includes last year’s 55-14 Montini dismissal of an Aurora Christian team that won all 13 of its other games en route to the 3A state title.
“When you have two defending state champs going at it the next year, it always creates a lot of buzz in the area,” Beebe said. “You could call it a rivalry but it really isn’t one because we really haven’t been much competition to them the last three years.”
Look for Friday’s meeting in Lombard to be a bit more interesting.
Montini (5-2) carries two more losses than unbeaten Aurora Christian but setbacks to juggernauts Lincoln-Way East and Marian Cental hardly qualify as causes for panic. It’s debatable whether the Broncos are quite as potent as they have been the past few years but the prospects for a better matchup Friday has more to do with Aurora Christian’s continued ascent.
This year’s Eagles have proven they can push around against larger programs, already owning conference victories against St. Francis and Marmion. They lead the well-respected Suburban Christian Conference Blue Conference in both points scored and fewest points allowed, and they’ve done it the past few weeks without leading receiver Chad Beebe, one of three Northern Illinois recruits on the Eagles’ roster.
Thriving in Chad Beebe’s absence underscores what Don Beebe considers the biggest difference between this year’s Eagles and the quality teams they’ve fielded in the recent past – superior depth. And while Don Beebe accurately predicted this year’s defense would be the best the Eagles have had, he’s been pleasantly surprised by the play of new starting quarterback Ryan McQuade (1,677 passing yards, 26 touchdowns) and an offensive line with three junior starters.
Regardless of how the game plays out Friday, Aurora Christian will be a heavy favorite when the Class 3A playoffs start later this month and the Eagles return to overwhelming schools of their size.
Winning another state championship, not beating Montini, is the season’s top objective.
But for some football observers, reasonably or otherwise, beating the Broncos would carry more cachet than whatever Aurora Christian achieves in the 3A postseason. The Eagles have proven they can win a state championship but they haven’t shown they can measure up to Montini – a name brand in Illinois high school football.
That’s what makes this Week 8 showdown so fascinating.
The Eagles’ football arc has been about knocking down barriers that used to hold them back. Friday’s matchup has that feel for an Aurora Christian program that won a state championship but, by the looks of this year’s team, has yet to max-out its ceiling.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.