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Columnist
Ten years later, this unbeaten Prospect team remains unique
By Marty Maciaszek | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/14/2011 12:19 AM

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Perspective is not a trait easily found in teenagers. That's what made a postgame conversation 10 years ago so memorably refreshing.

One of the most incredible turnarounds had just been completed when Prospect won the 2001 Class 7A state football championship with a 19-14 victory over Edwardsville. It was the ultimate rags to riches story a program that just a few years earlier went multiple seasons where it couldn't win a game had now finished one where it didn't lose a game.

As seniors Nick Spizzirri and Ben Coffman sat in the interview room at Champaign's Memorial Stadium, they smiled and put into perspective what they had just accomplished.

There was no defiant tone of no one believing in them. It was more along the lines of knowing they had defied some large odds.

"Look at us," said two of the all-area leaders of that team. "We're too small. We're too slow. We don't have any Division I players."

In fact, all-area teammate Mike Anderson was hard-pressed to remember anyone from his senior class taking more than a brief fling at college football at any level.

So, the last organized football game for many was also the one that put Prospect in the conversation with the high school football elite. That team will be recognized in a ceremony before today's 7:30 p.m. game at George Gattas Stadium with Rolling Meadows and will also have a postgame gathering in the Jean Walker Field House.

The 1960 Prospect team which finished 8-0 and won the Interim League title will also be honored.

"That group put Prospect High School on the map in the state of Illinois," said then-assistant coach and first-year Prospect head coach Mike Sebestyen of the 2001 team.

State titles would follow in 2002 and 2005 along with many other successes. But the 2001 team accomplished something few would have imagined at a school that had never even won a playoff game.

"The first one was fun because of some of the things going on that were brand new to us," said head coach Brent Pearlman, who is now in his first year as Lake Zurich's offensive coordinator. "We had to figure out how to go down and get film from Edwardsville. Because of the uniqueness of the first one - everything was a challenge."

There were high hopes coming off the Knights' first playoff appearance in 14 years where they were seeded 32nd in the 6A field and went to triple overtime before falling at top-seeded Bloomington.

How high depends on who you talk to.

"When we set our goals for the beginning of the season, I remember at Rantoul (in July) we said we wanted to make it to the state championship," Anderson said. "For us, maybe we knew, but most of the community and everybody around football really didn't know."

After all, it wasn't as if Prospect had a huge buildup of a quarterfinal or semifinal trips as a guide. But it was clear something was different after it beat Downers Grove North 21-13 in the opener and allowed only 22 points the rest of the regular season.

"We thought we had potentially a really good team, but the further you move along everything changes," Pearlman said. "All of a sudden about game three, you think you might be able to take this thing the distance."

All-area quarterback George Smith returned with a solid receiving crew of Anderson, Josh Flickinger and Nick Iovino. Patrick Wilson and Jason Rodriguez were a tough 1-2 combination in the backfield.

All-area linebacker Dave Triana was a small but big-hearted part of coordinator Joe Petricca's tough 4-3 defense with Coffman. Spizzirri was the heart and soul on both sides an the all-area captain.

And junior lineman Chris Bergner was the biggest starter at 6-feet-4, 230 pounds. But there were always a lot of undersized players swarming to the ball or making plays.

"The No. 1 thing me and my friends talk about is how crazy Petricca and Pearlman were as far as preparing," said Anderson, who teaches and coaches football and basketball at Leyden. "I can't even fathom how much work they did as coordinators."

Everything built up to a memorable Week 8 Saturday afternoon showdown of unbeatens at Buffalo Grove against future Notre Dame star and current Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski.

It became even more memorable as it was played in a day-long monsoon that made streets and playing conditions near impassable.

Rodriguez ran for a second-quarter touchdown and it held up for a 6-0 victory that was the third of four straight shutouts. Then it was on to the playoffs and wins over former state champions Loyola in the second round and BG in a quarterfinal rematch.

Next up was a semifinal visit by one of the state's perennial powers from Bolingbrook. Prospect quickly found itself in a 15-point hole.

Then came a turnaround almost symbolic of where the program itself had been. The Knights ripped off 40 straight points on the way to a 47-22 win and a trip to Champaign.

"That was like a movie to me," Pearlman said. "At 15-0 you're wondering if we're going to come back, and then the way we came back, I've probably never experienced a game like that where you could do no wrong.

"It was a game nobody expected us to win. That game may have been a little bigger symbolically than the state championship that year."

The Knights didn't have an easy time in Champaign but a 29-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Ryan Holajn late in the third quarter put them ahead to stay in the first of consecutive title wins over Edwardsville.

Not only was the incredible dream complete but the foundation was set for a memorable decade ahead.

"It was important for Prospect in general and it catapulted us to more wins the next season," Anderson said. "It let everybody believe this team can win."

mmaciaszek@dailyherald.com