Breaking down the process: Behind the scenes of Fisher football's first playoff win in 13 years

Six days to prepare for an unfamiliar opponent. Hours of breaking down film. Even more time spent on the practice field. It all added up to the biggest moment in more than a decade for Fisher football. Behind the scenes of the Bunnies’ first playoff win in 13 years, a first-round victory over Cumberland. 

Saturday, Oct. 20

8:09 p.m. — The Wild Hare Bar & Grill

Watch party

Elation is everywhere. There is no sense of ominous dread or impending heartbreak. And why should there be? Signs of an upset are barely there. Nonexistent, really. Present only if you scramble your memory to make them appear.

Right now in Fisher, all signs point to the scene that will unfold seven days from now, when seniors will be smiling ear-to-ear, coaches ribbing players for minor gaffes that no longer matter, and cheerleaders, classmates and children storming out of the bleachers and past the fences to engulf a field that has not enjoyed a moment like this in 13 years.

Right now they’re surrounded by parents and fans, and they’re watching Dave Bernhard at the hottest weekend spot in the town of 1,961, and they’re waiting to discover their fate.

They even get an extended shout-out from Bernhard, who gleefully informs “IHSA Football Playoff Pairing Show” viewers the name of the location the team is stationed at to celebrate the reveal of their playoff fate.

Bernhard speaks. Fisher is an 8-seed in the south bracket. It feels good. Feels right. They will play 9-seed Cumberland, at 2 p.m. Saturday, in a place that has not seen a playoff game for a decade.

The players are clapping. They are happy. They believe they will win.

8:15 p.m.

The novelty of seeing their name flash across the TV screen has worn off. It’s already time to get to work.

Who the heck is Cumberland?

That is Will Delaney’s reaction. And no doubt many of his teammates’ as they scramble to find out exactly who their playoff opponent is and what they do. Their offensive schemes. Defensive looks. Down-and-distance tendencies.

“They said Cumberland and, honestly, I had never heard of the school before,” says the Bunnies’ junior quarterback/safety. “That’s what was going through my head right at that moment. I was just excited to get to practice and prepare this week. I had no idea where they were at until Coach sent out the film.”

That’s one of the beauties of the playoffs. Opponents are complete mysteries — schools that players have never heard of and coaches have never scouted.

But not Jake Palmer. He knows exactly who Cumberland is. The wheels of playoff prep have been spinning all day.

Based on projections, Fisher’s third-year head coach had a strong assumption he would be meeting one of his alma mater’s conference rivals in the postseason. His dad, assistant coach Jeff Palmer, is a “bracket guru,” says Palmer. They’ve known since about 11 p.m. Friday.

Before 9 a.m. Saturday, Palmer had already exchanged emails with Lucas Watkins to get the head coach’s number. Watkins also knows it’s nearly a guarantee his Pirates will be making the 1-hour, 20-minute drive from Toledo to Kellar Field. He’s seen the projections, too.

Monday, Oct. 22

10:29 a.m. — Rantoul Press office

Game preview interview

Calls have been made and game film has been handed over, per say, via the online game footage company Hudl.

Per IHSA rules, teams must supply their opponents with two game tapes of the opposing coach’s choosing.

Cumberland chose Fisher’s Week 7 win over Deer Creek-Mackinaw and Week 9 loss to LeRoy.

Fisher chose Cumberland’s Week 7 loss to Orangeville and Week 5 win over Villa Grove/Heritage.

Palmer is plenty familiar with the latter. In 2008, he was a News-Gazette All-Area first team member as a defensive back for the Blue Devils, who reside in the same conference and division as the Pirates.

He also may need to hide his face, win or lose, the next time he visits Toledo, the main town that makes up Cumberland’s student body. His uncle hails from the Cumberland school district and lives about 10 minutes from its campus. Palmer has been to Toledo, he estimates, about 20 times.

“I told the kids, ‘I really like going to a couple of their restaurants there in town, so we’ve got to make sure to win so I can keep going back,’” says Palmer.

Cumberland comes out of the Little Okaw Valley Conference’s Southeast division where it won a league title with a 4-0 mark.

Following a 5-4 record in 2014, their first year in the LOVC, and another 5-4 campaign in 2015 in Watkins’ first year, he has led them to three straight conference titles and a third straight postseason berth, including a 26-21 first-round upset win as a 10-seed over 7-seed Decatur Christian last season. It’s a seasoned program with playoff experience that is on the upswing.

Palmer may be able to see a little of himself in Watkins. His program is undergoing its own renaissance, transforming itself from a winless team in 2016 to a 12-seed in the playoffs last year.

“They’re a program that’s really building. Coach Watkins has done a good job getting them established,” says Palmer. “They’re competing for the LOVC Southeast crown year-in and year-out. He’s got something good going over there. We know they’re going to be ready to go.

“Being from the LOVC, I know some coaches that played them, and I’m familiar with their schedule because of that. When we were trading film, I knew what I wanted to be looking for. It wasn’t a thing where I didn’t know anything about them. I knew what they did offensively.”

This is where, by far, the most interesting dynamic of Saturday’s matchup between rising programs comes into clearer view.

Palmer does the legwork of breaking down game tape. Charting plays, formations, discovering tendencies and pinpointing weak spots where Watkins’ team can be exploited.

As he digs deeper, he discovers how similar preparation will be this coming week as it was to last year’s postseason game.

Tuesday, Oct. 23

3:35 p.m. — Fisher High School

Open gym

Cody Diskin gasps for air as he jogs up and down the court along with assistant coach Tony Winkler.

The pair leads a group of five underclassmen and senior Dalton Burk in a 4-on-4 open gym session and Diskin, a former Blue Ridge point guard, knifes into the lane and puts up a floater.

Diskin, the Bunnies’ boys basketball head coach who is a little more tired than usual while still recovering from a cold, is forced to run up and down during pseudo pick-up games because, for the second straight season, the major chunk of his players are gearing up for a playoff game in the last week of October.

For now, it’s still football season.

3:37 p.m. — Athletic Director’s office

It’s the end of the school day, and Palmer is rushing to get prepped and head out to practice after fulfilling AD duties throughout the morning and afternoon.

Quickly, though, he highlights one thing on Cumberland’s game tape.

The Pirates run a spread offense, going in shotgun in 3-4 receiver sets for most of their snaps. Some of their concepts mirror that of Fisher’s first-round opponent in 2017, the Aquin Bulldogs.

Hailing from the famed Northwest Upstate Illini Conference, a 17-team monster league divided into Northwest and Upstate divisions, Aquin employed its own spread offensive attack that supplied Fisher with a completely different animal to stop.

In the Bunnies’ Heart of Illinois Conference, a 12-team league divided into Large and Small divisions, air raids are far from the norm. It is a rugged, ground-and-pound league defined predominantly by between-the-tackle runs and trying to get on the perimeter with jet handoffs and sweeps.

Cumberland runs a ton of formations, more than 40 on the game tape Palmer has analyzed.

Everything a coach wants is on Hudl — plays broken down by play type, formation, down-and-distance, result, defensive front, coverage, etc.

The coaching staff already knows the Pirates are a heavily tendency-based team. They know where the ball is going almost every time based on the formation and where certain players are lined up.

3:50 p.m.

Fisher practice field

When Fisher was paired with the No. 5 Bulldogs from Freeport, it provided an apples-and-oranges contrast of offensive game plans. That the Bunnies’ 2018 postseason matchup will be of the same ilk is not lost among Fisher personnel. But the differences in passing attacks has also caught their eye, and it could mean a more explosive offense predicated on bigger boom-or-bust plays.

“Aquin was a little more effective throwing the ball underneath,” says defensive backs/special teams coach Jeff Palmer. “They were a little more patient than I think Cumberland is.”

That’s what made Aquin’s passing game more aggravating for Fisher’s defense. Jonah Diemer, a 5-8 mobile quarterback, didn’t have a cannon. Instead, the Bulldogs’ signal caller ate the Bunnies up with short and intermediate routes, mainly on slants the secondary couldn’t stop.

Overall, Aquin’s passing attack was better at all three levels, but Cumberland’s is a new test for Jeff Palmer’s corners and safety. The Pirates are good at getting their playmakers in space in the flats and on slant routes, but their receivers are deadlier when it comes to stretching the field. They can get vertical, high-point balls and make plays.

4:05 p.m.

There can’t be a repeat of last year. There just can’t. These Bunnies have worked too hard for that to happen. They have thought about it every day and used it as motivation during offseason weight room workouts and 7-on-7 competitions.

But being fired up can only take you so far. If execution is not there on game day, one of the most heartbreaking losses in Fisher football history will see a sequel. Even more heartbreaking if it happens on its homefield.

2017 Class 1A IHSA Playoffs

First round

Aquin 30

Fisher 27

Six inches.

That’s what an entire season boiled down to.

On its final drive, Fisher came less than a yard short of a third-down conversion and punted. Aquin methodically drove the ball down the field, including its own 3rd-and-9 conversion, and Zac Cummins pushed a 37-yard game-winning field goal past the crossbar by a half-foot.

Eight seconds remained on the clock, but that was it. A season dubbed as a “make-or-break year” by Palmer nearly three months ago ended in excruciating fashion.

It wasn’t a wasted season by any means. The Bunnies still turned the program around 180 degrees after one of the worst seasons in team history a year prior.

But coming up that short has been debilitating for more than 365 days since the Oct. 28 loss.

“Trust me, it still gets at you,” says senior lineman and captain Tanner Diorio. He shakes his head and pauses. Looks at the brick wall in the high school hallway — a perfect metaphor for the “Brick by Brick” program mantra Palmer created and hopes a playoff win will help solidify. Diorio still remembers moments in the game where things could have taken a different direction. Like a more-than-questionable roughing the passer penalty on Nick Harness to erase an interception that Kade Thomas returned deep into Aquin territory.

“Stuff like that, after the game you think about it, and you’re like no way that was a roughing the passer call. You don’t really notice that stuff when you’re giving 100 percent effort in a playoff game. But, I guess, it just really gets at you later.”

It was one of the most exciting games of the year and arguably the best first-round game in 1A. Of the 16 matchups, only four were one-possession final scores. Cumberland’s win over Decatur Christian was one of them.

Cumberland Offense

Gabe Hatfill

Hatfill is the quarterback Fisher coaches have been raving about all week. The 6-5, 210-pounder can sling it.

He’s got a rocket. A quick, compact throw and a tight spiral every time. He’ll stand in the pocket and get it out quickly on bubble screens, slants and heave it deep on wheel and seam routes.

The straw that stirs the Pirates’ drink has completed 99-of-170 passes for 1,531 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions in eight games. But he sat out the regular-season finale with a knee injury.

Wyatt Brant

Cumberland’s run game has steadily improved throughout the season, and Brant is the bell cow.

The Bunnies are gearing up for Watkins to potentially ground-and-pound with Brant, a 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore running back who has rushed for 22 TDs and 1,122 yards on 143 carries this season.

Michael Flier

An apt name for the only receiver Palmer and company are truly game-planning for: 20 catches, 540 yards, three TDs.

Flier stands at 5-11 and just 155 pounds, but No. 1 in white-and-yellow is dangerous. 

Fisher Defense

Noah Taylor

Taylor is the biggest question mark on defense.

The 6-foot, 180-pound cornerback will be rusty. He started at cornerback in Weeks 1 and 2, but he struggled in run defense and has played sparingly since getting dinged up in Week 3. Cale Horsch replaced him, and Taylor was put on the backburner.

In the regular season finale, however, Horsch suffered a separated shoulder, and Taylor got back on the field. Some coaches secretly believe Horsch’s injury may be a blessing in disguise. Taylor is much better in pass defense than he is stopping the run.

“I think Noah’s going to be great for us in the secondary,” Delaney says. “Noah’s going to make some plays. He has the potential to do that. … The whole secondary trusts each other, and I think we’ll be great on Saturday.”

“He’s the perfect example of a kid who would’ve been awesome if he’d played all four years,” assistant coach Ken Ingold says of Taylor, who is in his first year playing football.

Unbelievable praise for an inexperienced player with just three career starts under his belt.

The natural talent is there, and so is the confidence. “I hope they pass as much as (the coaches) are saying,” Taylor says. If he gets his wish, people will see front and center what he’s made of. If he can put everything together is what remains to be seen.

Tyrese Martin

“Noah’s a big defensive back,” Martin says. “I think they won’t really be picking on him a lot. I think they’ll be picking more on me. He’s going to be a playing a major role, and he’s got a lot to handle this week. He’s prepared, and we’ve talked to him. He’s ready.”

But is Martin ready? The 5-9, 150-pound senior corner is just like the rest of this secondary. Untested. He says he feels prepared, and the coaches and scout team are to thank for that.

“I’m ready,” Martin says. “I feel like I can play one-on-one. Nobody’s really thrown the ball against us. I think it’ll be a challenge, but I can handle it.”

Will Delaney

The quarterback of the defense, Delaney now has two full seasons of experience at starting safety. He is the lone Bunnie in the secondary with experience going against a lethal spread team after starting against Aquin as a sophomore.

He is tasked with reading Hatfill’s eyes, playing center field. What the junior is most worried about is the deep passes Hatfill is bound to heave. If he throws it short, Delaney is confident in The Mob — the Fisher defense’s self-dubbed nickname — and its ability to rally to the ball.

4:07 p.m.

“We’re not changing anything for these guys,” Jeff Palmer says.

He’s locking eyes with Martin. Then he pans around to the rest of his secondary. They’re going to stay seven yards deep at the snap of the ball in their Cover 3 technique. No different than if they were facing a run-heavy HOIC team.

The main play Palmer is concerned with is “Four Verts.” Cumberland’s two outside receivers run fade routes down the sidelines. The two on the inside run seams up the hash marks. It’s a route concept they will be homing in on all week.

But Cumberland doesn’t have the athletes to beat Fisher deep. The Pirates receivers are good athletes, but they have no shot at beating guys like Martin vertically. Not if they read their keys.

That’s Palmer’s belief. He likes the matchup. It’s going to be their most difficult and interesting one of the season, and that’s just fine with him. As long as they’re prepared. As long as they practice full speed. But right now, they’re not.

He gets on Martin for going too slow during the drill. Then he warns against the dangers of going for an interception. If you’re not 100 percent coming down with that ball, knock that baby down.

In the playoffs, the tiniest details matter. In an all-or-nothing game, they are no longer microscopic.

Normally in Cover 3, Fisher’s corners will stay inside the receivers coming their way down the sidelines. They play inside-out, taking extra steps inside toward the middle of the field. It ensures they can recover to the outside on fade routes, but it gives them the extra advantage they need to break up seam routes or any other routes inside the numbers.

That “melting” technique helps them keep everything in front and still recover on a deep ball headed their way, and the safety, meanwhile, plays center field, reading the quarterback’s eyes.

They can’t afford to sneak too far inside this week with the route schemes Cumberland throws at opponents and with the arm strength of its quarterback.

The Bunnies want to encourage an over-the-top throw on the fade because it’s an incredibly difficult pass to make — much harder than up the seam — for a high school quarterback. Even one as talented as Cumberland’s.

“This kid can (throw it over the top), so we’re not pressing our guys to melt as much as we normally would,” Palmer says. “This kid’s got a really good arm. He’s the real deal. I’m hoping we can get pressure on him. He’s just like any other quarterback — if we can get pressure on him, we’ll be OK.

“If they drive one into the seam, our cornerbacks don’t have as much time to react, so we’d like them to be shaded toward the seam and recover on the fade.”

It’s a subtle change, but inches matter.

Just ask Aquin.

4:20 p.m.

He is well-versed in the opponent’s schemes and vertical passing concepts. What Jake Palmer doesn’t know is who will be on his offensive line.

He knows the bookends. Left tackle Hunter Coon and right tackle Andrew Zook are good to go. In the middle is where some shuffling will happen, and it could make or break the Bunnies’ offensive production Saturday.

Jed Chow is the X-factor.

The Bunnies’ junior center is one of their leaders up front. Talented, intensely emotional and cerebral, he’s a guy Palmer has praised all season as one of Fisher’s smartest players. No. 67 is a spark plug. A kid who you can tell a piece of information one time, and he remembers it and executes it.

After an offensive possession, Chow is always one of the guys Palmer approaches on the sidelines to ask what’s working and what’s not. There’s mutual trust there.

But he has been without Chow’s services almost all season.

He went down in Week 3 with a knee injury, and he has steadily been on the mend for nearly two months. At several different points, the staff had hoped to get him back but to no avail.

And Palmer’s still not positive Chow will be a full-go Saturday, and he’s not sure who his starting right guard will be, either.

Weeks 1-3 starting offensive line

Hunter Coon, Dakota Foster, Jed Chow, Tanner Diorio, Andrew Zook

Week 4-5

Coon, Foster, Dylan Baker, Diorio, Zook

*Backup center Baker poked in eye on defense in Week 5; moved to tight end upon his Week 6 return

Weeks 6-9

Coon, Foster, Diorio, Caleb Liestman, Zook

*Foster suffers ankle injury in Week 9

Today, Chow is moving around fluidly in practice, participating in every drill and looking sharp. It looks like he’ll be ready.

With Foster’s injury, it thrusts Chow into the starting left guard spot. The coaching staff is looking for as much continuity as possible, and with Diorio performing admirably at center — the most critical position on the line in Fisher’s option offense — they don’t want to move him. And being Chow’s first game back, they refuse to saddle him with such a big responsibility in the season’s most important game.

With the reshuffling, and with Foster’s status unknown, Saturday’s OL is projected to look like this:

Week 10

Coon, Chow, Diorio, Liestman, Zook

4:25 p.m.

Fisher hasn’t run 7-on-7 at practice since preparing for Week 1’s nonconference game against Hoopeston Area/Schlarman Academy/Armstrong-Potomac. There’s been no need in the HOIC.

But the Bunnies are running it today. For obvious reasons.

Now, those defensive backs get some live action against “Four Verts” run by the scout team filled with Fisher underclassmen.

But it’s not just vertical passing schemes. The secondary and linebacking corps also have to be aware of quick bubble screens in five-receiver sets out of the shotgun.

Fade-hitch route combos. I-Formation (fullback behind the quarterback; running back behind the fullback) play-action passes with a tight end coming across the middle of the field on a dig route. Fake counter plays on rollouts to the right. Trips-left or trips-right (three receivers to either side). Crosser routes. Double slants and wheel routes.

It’s a lot of information in just six days to throw at a defense that has been focused on run stoppage for an entire season. And right now, that’s what it looks like.

Dylan Baker doesn’t get to the inside receiver on the bubble screen quick enough. That’s the senior linebacker’s responsibility. Noah Taylor allows an easy pitch-and-catch on a seam route. Then, the linebackers allow a receiver to get behind them in coverage for an easy 15 yards to the tight end on a play-action rollout.

Today, the pass defense looks vulnerable. The practice tape will show it all. “We’re going to have to watch this film hard,” Palmer tells his assistants.

Wednesday, Oct. 24

3:35 p.m. — Fisher weight room

Pre-practice lift session

It remains one of the most interesting dynamics of the past two seasons of Fisher football.

The players do not watch game tape. At least, they are not required to. Opponent game film is on Hudl, and the players have access to it, but there are no team film sessions prior to practice or at any other point during the week.

After a blowout loss to rival and eventual 2A state champions Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley in Week 2 of 2017, Palmer threw convention out the window. He felt his guys were intimidated by seeing the Falcons on film.

Since then, Palmer and the coaches break down opponent tape by themselves and relay the game plan to their players. It’s all an effort to ensure the kids are focused on themselves and what they need to do. It’s not a completely radical strategy, but it’s certainly unusual.

To their credit, the players buy in. They are 12-5 since the GCMS loss.

It doesn’t stop Palmer from spending hours breaking down opponents, and on a tablet in Fisher’s diminutive weight room, he pulls up a Cumberland game.

Fisher’s base set — quarterback in the pistol, fullback 2-3 yards behind him, a wingback on each side right behind the offensive line, one receiver out wide — is almost exclusively the formation their offense is run out of. A tight end will replace the receiver, and sometimes they send one of their wingbacks into the slot. But their base is their go-to.

Cumberland does things much different.

The Pirates line up in their “most common” formation — shotgun, trips receivers to one side, another receiver or tight end on the other and one running back lined up next to the quarterback — on just 13 percent of their offensive snaps. It’s a balanced offense with a variety of looks.

One of their favorite plays? A dump pass out of shotgun to their tight end — No. 40, Zach Wolke.

But that’s not what Palmer’s worried about. It’s a play he believes is easy to diagnose pre-snap. His guys will be ready for that, and he feels good about the DB vs. WR matchups across the board.

What he’s nervous about is his run defense. It’s coming off an absolute gashing in a 46-14 loss to LeRoy in the regular season finale. Rodney Kaeb and the Panthers ran it down Fisher’s throats, and it cost the Bunnies a conference title and narrowly a home playoff game. But it also left them exposed.

Watkins requested Fisher’s game tape of the loss to LeRoy, and now he has the lowdown on its biggest weakness. And maybe the formula to advance to the second round for the second straight year.

This is where Palmer’s preparation kicks in. Sure, the Pirates are known for their shotgun spread attack, but they also have a strong running game led by Brant. He can be explosive out of the I-Formation and Wishbone, but Cumberland is also tendency-oriented.

Out of their 24 Wishbone plays on tape, 23 of them have been handoffs to Brant with Wolke leading the way.

“Wherever number 40 lines up, that’s where they’re going to run the ball,” he says, playing four Wishbone plays in a row. All go to Brant, with Wolke as lead blocker.

Fisher’s plan? They’re sticking their best defensive lineman, Diorio, straight up on Wolke on the end of the line of scrimmage.

“Our best guy vs. their best blocker.”

4:09 p.m.

Practice field

Palmer chases around his fullback Tyler Wilson. The head coach is teasing Wilson about his lack of lateral quickness, even performing a minor miracle — getting the stoic junior to crack a half-smile.

But it’s time to get to work on punt team, where Jeff Palmer puts his unit through standard punt practice before pulling out the gimmicks.

They practice a fake run by the punter Delaney, who sprints up the right sideline with a pair of lead blockers.

It’s not insignificant.

In a Week 2 win over Tremont, Delaney missed what would have been a long touchdown pass to Cale Horsch, who was running free across the middle on third down. As the clock dwindled down in the fourth quarter and with the Bunnies trailing, they called that same fake, and Delaney made a man miss before crossing the first-down sticks.

A few plays later, Delaney hit Tyler Martin for a 54-yard completion, and Wilson punched in the eventual game-winner in a 26-21 win.

It was a defining moment of Fisher’s season, and one of the hundreds of plays in the 2018 season that led to the program’s first home playoff game since 2008. Without that conversion on the fake, a 6-3 finish (or perhaps even 5-4 if the Bunnies don’t have the confidence heading into an eventual 21-14 win over Tri-Valley in Week 3) could have been very possible. Likely, even. That pushes Fisher down to the 12-13 seed range and another long bus trip awaits in the postseason. 

4:16 p.m.

The next 20 minutes are spent focused on the Fisher ground game. It’s why the Bunnies are where they are.

Their option offense, featuring triple-, midline- and speed-option looks, is difficult to prepare for and even harder to defend. They keep things simple, but they do it well. Fisher ran the ball 85 percent of its offensive plays this season, compared to Cumberland’s 62 percent.

Fisher Offense

Tyler Wilson

Fisher’s offensive linchpin is not a protypical fullback. He’s 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. He looks like he would get crunched at the line of scrimmage and tossed back.

But the junior runs harder than most backs in the area. He’s not afraid. He runs low and puts his shoulder down, often punishing linemen and linebackers at the end of 7- and 8-yard bursts. But he can also get to the perimeter and outrun defensive backs.

He’s a 100- and 200-meter sprinter in track, and he’s shown off the wheels plenty during a season in which he’s rushed for 1,267 yards and 22 TDs on 236 carries. He’s just 256 yards away from tying the program’s single-season rushing yards record held by Colten Unzicker (1,523 yards in 2015).

Will Delaney

Wilson is a workhorse in every sense of the word. He’s gotten 30-plus carries in four of Fisher’s nine games this year. “He’s one of the hearts and souls of this team,” Delaney said after their win over Tremont.

But so is Delaney.

The 5-10, 165-pound quarterback means so much to this team, and it’s been present not just with the way he leads it on offense and defense but also with how the junior captain leads it on the practice field. He doesn’t have the stats Wilson has (less than 300 rushing yards and 10 total TDs), but he’s every bit as important.

Jed Chow

Chow, 5-11 and 180 pounds, is one of the team’s unheralded athletes. Having him back could be an underlying difference maker not many will notice outside of his teammates and the coaching staff.

The Bunnies aren’t worried about attacking any specific Cumberland defenders, or any particular areas of weakness. They just plan on doing what they’ve done all season — making sure their option plays and blocking schemes are crisp and run as close to perfection as possible.

5:12 p.m.


As Bunnies defensive coordinator in 2015, Palmer thought he had a sound game plan heading into a nonconference matchup vs. Salt Fork.

He knew the Storm had great athletes all over the field, and he tried to counter with man-to-man coverage.

It was horrendous. The Storm’s Connor Taylor bombed passes left and right on Fisher’s defense, throwing for a school record seven touchdowns and finishing with more than 300 yards passing in a 54-40 shootout win.

From that point forward, it was all zone passing defense with Cover 3. He has never played man coverage since — too risky for high school corners.

There won’t be anything different against Cumberland, and that’s what they are gearing up for in Day 2 of 7-on-7.

Tuesday’s session wasn’t terrible, but there were several spots the coaches want corrected today.

5:21 p.m.

Baker getting out late to his responsibility yesterday? A thing of the past. He quickly recognizes his read-key on a trips-left bubble screen, and he attacks the inside receiver as The Mob rallies to the ball.

That easy catch Taylor allowed? No one remembers now. The senior picked off two of Delaney’s passes 30 minutes ago during 11-on-11, and he makes another fine play in coverage by forcing an incompletion out of bounds.

After Martin and Delaney team up to force another incompletion from assistant coach Simon Corley — serving as Hatfill while fellow assistant Thomas Hardesty dons a yellow beanie to mark himself as Flier for the scout team — the two rise for a back-bump.

Jake Palmer, as energetic a head coach as you’ll see roaming the sidelines, wants in on the action, too, and gives Delaney his own back bump before, “That’s a coverage sack, baby! Coach Corley! We’re 10 plays in. Have you guys completed a pass yet?” he laughs, 50 percent arrogant, 50 percent joking, 100 percent thrilled.

That’s right before the final play, when outside linebacker Tyler Martin jumps an out route and runs for a pick-six — the only “completion” of the drill other than a quick pass — complete with his entire team, Palmer included in his trademark bucket hat, sprinting and hollering behind him as he goes.

“1-2-3 … No Fly Zone!”

Stolen from the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl champion secondary in 2015, that’s the moniker the Bunnies defensive backs have chosen for themselves, and that’s how they break out of their huddle. They’re going to have to be a No Fly Zone come Saturday.

5:45 p.m.

It’s one of the best practices of the year. That’s the unanimous belief of all involved in the program. The energy and effort was unbelievable, and so was focus and execution. The type of practice you would expect heading into a playoff game.

“They have NO IDEA how hard we’re working for this,” Jake Palmer tells his team.

The head coach wraps up practice by letting his guys in on a secret. At an AD meeting that morning, Palmer sat in a seat in front of a Cumberland coach. Palmer, with his back turned, was decked out in Illini gear, and the Cumberland coach in a blue and yellow hat with the “C” embroidered on it. The anonymous coach tells someone sitting next to him that Fisher hasn’t beaten anyone good. The two good teams they have played (GCMS and LeRoy) destroyed them.

That gets the players fired up. They feel disrespected.

“We’re better than them,” Jeff Palmer chimes in. “And I don’t say that to you guys. … Ever.”

9:31 p.m.

Finally watching extended game film of Cumberland’s matchup with Orangeville, Hatfill’s lethal rocket arm is present: 2nd-and-20, Hatfill puts Flier out wide to the right in one-on-one man coverage against a Broncos corner. The defensive back is draped all over him. Excellent coverage. But Hatfill’s gorgeous over-the-top throw is dropped in perfectly to Flier, who snags a terrific catch up the sideline, inches from the chalk.

If Fisher doesn’t get pressure from its pass rush and its corners don’t stay disciplined and keep weapons like Flier in front of them, it’s going to be a long day.

Thursday, Oct. 25

4:00 p.m. — Fisher High School

Practice field

“You guys need to do a good job of telling me what you’re seeing and what you like,” Palmer is telling his offense. As much as anything, Palmer’s confidence in his team stems from his players. He’s not on an island making decisions during the game. He wants his 16-18-year-olds giving him feedback.

“You,” he says, pointing at Chow, “need to let me know what you’re seeing from their fronts.”

4:12 p.m.

“Don’t film this. This is a surprise,” says Jeff Palmer.

Instead of Andrew Ferguson lining up at kicker, Andrew Keslowski is thrown out there, with Ferguson being hidden in the huddle. As Keslowski turns his back to the opponent’s kick return team and begins walking away from the ball, Ferguson sprints forward and taps the ball 10 yards toward the right side for a surprise onside-kick.

They may use this play. They may not. But it’s in the repertoire.

4:21 p.m.

All of offensive/defensive line coach Jon Deedrick’s big guys fire out of their stances, hitting the sleds with ferocity.

But it’s obvious who stands out.

He’s the vocal leader. Ever since summer workouts, he leads the guys during team pushups, stretches and warmups. He’s a team captain, and he’s earned that honor. He holds teammates accountable. Pushes them to be better than they were the day before. Not afraid to get on them.

He leads by example, too. He’s not all talk. He goes all-out during every drill and every practice session — whether he’s going up against a tackling dummy or in live action.

He brings it with him on game day. One of the team’s leading tacklers and seemingly always getting into the backfield. He’s not the sole reason the Bunnies beat Dee-Mack, but 17 total tackles, including six tackles-for-loss, was certainly the catalyst.

He’s also versatile. He switched from guard to center, not a subtle change. And against Dee-Mack, he switched from defensive end to nose guard.

And he has the image. He just looks like a football player.

If you heard someone tell you he’s Fisher best player and you didn’t agree, it would be fun to hear your counter argument.

Flat out … the 5-9, 200-pound senior can ball.

Tanner Diorio means everything to this Bunnies team. And he’s going to need to bring it all on Saturday.

Friday, Oct. 26

5:02 p.m. — Fisher High School

Practice field

It’s a short practice. A final walk-through on offense and defense, but he wants his guys to be well-rested and get them out of the rainy, dreary weather early — rain that will hopefully soften what is a hardened Kellar Field right now.

There isn’t a ton more to do before tomorrow. No more preparation to be had. A little extra motivation as Palmer lets his guys know how they should feel that Cumberland has, we’ll say “the guts,” to run on them. All part of his tactic to get his guys fired up.

“I’m going to be losing my mind on the sidelines when they try to run on us,” he says.

Now, it’s time for Palmer’s final message before game day.

Nothing fancy. He wants emotion from his players. He wants to see the fired-up team he saw when the defense made its final stop against Tremont a yard short of a first down on its final drive on fourth down. The final play of a goal-line stand against Tri-Valley. When the last horn sounded in a 19-18 win over Dee-Mack.

He showed them the tape of LeRoy going crazy when the Panthers beat Fisher to lock down their own playoff berth. That’s what he wants his guys to emulate.

He wraps up by disciplining them — the players haven’t been showing appreciation for a cheerleading squad that stayed at the school until 7:30 Tuesday night to decorate and weren’t as grateful for the school assembly earlier in the afternoon as they should have been.

“I hope we win tomorrow so we can show appreciation next week,” says a heated Palmer, adding yet another good reason to win — a hard task to accomplish, and Palmer knows that very well. He was a key member of a 10-1 Villa Grove team that went unbeaten in the regular season, won a first-round playoff game over Arthur-Lovington (41-21) and lost in the second round to Pawnee (20-8).

“I want to spend more time with you guys and these coaches. I want to keep this going because I love coaching this group,” Palmer says. “There’s a reason it hasn’t been done here in 13 years, guys. It’s freakin’ hard to win in the playoffs.”

They are desperate for that to change.

Saturday, Oct. 27

8 a.m. — Eastern Illinois University


Palmer is in rare air.

The 28-year-old heads a small staff and serves as Fisher’s athletic director, football head coach, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator, the latter of which is due to 2017 offensive coordinator Chad Musselman, Palmer’s high school coach, taking a teaching job elsewhere. That makes Palmer one of a microscopic number of people in the state owning that quartet of job titles.

If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Palmer this summer added the most important title to his name … fiancé. And just to toss some additional work his own way, he is attending classes at Eastern Illinois University to attain a master’s degree for a principalship down the road.

This morning, he makes the 69-mile drive south down I-57 to make a presentation for one of his classes. (Ironically enough, just 20 minutes from the campus of Cumberland High School.)

For those who hate public speaking or making presentations, the nerves might be higher for that. But what’s he more anxious for?

“The game,” he says without hesitation.

12:15 p.m. — Fisher High School Gym

He says he doesn’t get nervous before games, but his face says different.

He’s a little more fidgety than he realizes.

Maybe he doesn’t get nervous before most games. But not this one.

It’s hard to blame him. After all, Palmer is the guy who took over for a beloved coach, one of his mentors.

Matt Leng will never take credit for it, but he built the Fisher football program of the 2000s. His players would run through a brick wall for him, and he made the Bunnies a perennial playoff contender with a brand of football he called “Smashmouth Cowtown” football, reaching the postseason in nine of his first 12 seasons from 2002-2013 before 3-6 seasons in 2014 and 2015.

Palmer served as Leng’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015, but in his third season on top of the pyramid, he’s the face of a program that is making school history. He’s hoping to make a little more.

12:30 p.m.

“It’s time to pace,” Ingold says. Butterflies are setting in.

Palmer guides his offensive and defensive units through the last walk-through. This is when he finally tells his team its first offensive play of the game — a toss to Wilson, coming in motion out of the left wingback spot. The guys get a little juiced up when they hear the call.

“It starts with you five up front,” he says, pointing to his offensive linemen. “If you guys play well, we’ll win. Every play matters. Every inch matters. I want to know everything about them.”

12:45 p.m.

He brings the entire team together in a huddled mass at midcourt.

It’s time for a second-to-last message before kickoff.

“Make them quit. That’s got to be your mentality,” he preaches. “We haven’t experienced this in a decade. I expect maximum passion and effort. You need to check your pulse if you’re not charged up for this one.”

He’s still laid back. Other than hooting and hollering during practice drills this week, he has been pretty even-keeled. He still is in this moment as he has them break out of the huddle.

“Look around, enjoy the moment, and take it all in. This is special. Family on three…”

12:55 p.m.

Palmer has tried his best all week to get emotion and passion out of his team. For the most part, he has gotten it during practice.

But something that worries the coach at times is his team’s laid-back persona.

“We’re just a team that’s very even-keeled, and that can be good in some situations, but other times it can be a bad thing,” he said following Friday’s practice. “If we can play with more emotion, I feel like we can compete with anyone.”

This is where that emotion comes out. If this is an even-keeled, monotone, boring group of players, they could fool some people right now.

The tiny shed attached to Fisher’s concession stand serves as the Bunnies’ patchwork locker room. They stuff inside it, shoulder-to-shoulder as they play an anxious waiting game until one hour before kickoff, when players are legally allowed by the IHSA to take the field for warmups.

Senior Tyler Martin is on the ones and twos. His playlist, consisting exclusively of rap music, has been blasting at practice all week. The players love it. The coaches, not as much, but they tolerate it. It gets their guys going.

With the speakers turned all the way up to the max, pounding so hard you think they’ll explode with the next bass drop, the sound reverberates off the vanilla-painted brick walls as Martin drops “Mo Bamba” on his teammates.

Thirty-two seconds in. First major bass drop. The team loses its mind.

So loud you can’t hear your own thoughts. Heart pounding out of your chest. They would have it no other way.

Cale Horsch and Delaney dance with the beat in the front of the room. Coon smiles, rapping each lyric.

If this is a nervous group, they’re hiding it well.

Everyone except Wilson. His expression never changes. It’s the biggest game of the season, and he knows how big of a role he’ll play. But judging by his face, you’d think it was Week 3 in the HOIC. Or, maybe not. Maybe he is aware of the moment.

“Tyler gets so nervous before games,” an assistant says. No, after all, he’s not a robot. He gets it. Even with Palmer dabbing him up and trying to get him loose, not a single fiber on his face twitches.

1:26 p.m.

The seven seniors from the 2017 team who walked off the field for the final time in their career in heartbreak are invited onto the sidelines for this game.

Jaden Jones-Watkins, Kade Thomas, Jacob Horsch, Dawson Purvis, Nick Harness, Cam Sublon and Brandon Henson.

“When I texted those guys, every single one of them said they’d be back, and I think that’s really special and shows how special our football program is in their life,” Palmer said. “I just think it’s so important because they were the guys who helped build this. The guys this year have put in a ton of work and have deserved everything they’ve gotten, but the guys who were here last year just maybe weren’t around long enough to really see what they did and how it paid off in the long run.”

1:37 p.m.

Delaney is off in pregame warmups. The Bunnies are practicing pass plays inside the 10-yard line, and Martin breaks off a slant route, and as he crosses the goal line, the pass is thrown behind him.

Same can be said for Andrew Keslowski on the other side of the formation. Delaney’s throw is off the mark by more than a foot behind the senior wideout.

1:46 p.m.

“Let’s get turnt!” Cale Horsch says.

They play one last song. “Dreams and Nightmares” by Meek Mill.

For 1 minute, 36 seconds, the beat remains steady. Composed. “Ain’t this what they’ve been waiting for? You ready?”

It’s almost time.

And then, in a perfect metaphor for this exact group, the song explodes.

“Hold up, wait a minute! Y’all thought I was finished?!”

The perfect precursor to what follows.

The music gets cut off. Palmer has something to say. Just like the song, he’s been holding back until the perfect moment. Now is the time to let loose. He’s been saving this moment since Tuesday.

He paces back and forth, getting more pissed off with each step. In half of a heartbeat, he crescendos from calm and collected to furious.

“They don’t respect you!” he shouts at the top of his lungs. Spittle flies from his mouth. The veins in his neck pop. His eyes widen. More passionate than he’s been at any moment of the season. “They played in a bad conference, and the two teams they did play, kicked the crap out of ‘em. That’s what they said about YOU!

“They’re arrogant! They don’t think anything of your team, your town, or your community!” Doesn’t matter if that’s what the Pirates really think. This is the final power punch, the last firework, to get his team’s emotions to explode out of a box.

He takes a quick breath. “Give it everything you’ve got. Do it for your yourself. Do it for your town. And,” he pats Diorio, Baker and Tyrese Martin on the shoulder pads, “do it for the seniors. Let’s go.”

1:58 p.m.

Jeff Palmer gathers his kick return unit. “Everything you’ve worked on the last 2-3 years is about today. Give it everything you’ve got. There’s no going back.”

2:01 p.m.

The game opens in near disaster. For the most agonizing, briefest of moments, the Bunnies’ bad luck in postseason games looks like it’s going to pick up right where it brutally left off.

Wilson’s nerves before a game? Obvious from the jump.

Just as Palmer told his team he would do, he calls the pitch play, and Wilson goes in motion. It’s a perfect play call. The Pirates’ defense leaves the right side wide open and vulnerable.

Delaney drops a perfect toss the junior’s way, and the ball hits him in the hands and stomach and tumbles to the grass — softened by last night’s rain — as Cumberland’s defensive end, purposely left unblocked, bears down on him.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.

The ball takes one bounce off the ground and ascends right back into Wilson’s arms. He tucks it and runs. Ten-yard pickup. Measurement. First down.

The Bunnies gash an overwhelmed and shell-shocked Cumberland front seven. Three more runs. Two first downs. Then, Delaney breaks a big one. After a beautiful fake to Wilson on an option that gets an unblocked defensive tackle to bite, a staple in the Bunnies’ offense, a kickout block by Zook leaves a gaping hole, and Delaney does the rest. He sheds tackles by an out-of-position linebacker and a confused safety on his way to 33 yards up the right side.

Wilson finishes it off with a 2-yard touchdown run. On the extra point, Cory Hicks takes the snap on a fake run and easily cruises in.

Fisher 8

Cumberland 0


First quarter

This is why Chow is here. He instantly heads to the sidelines and relays to his coach that the Cumberland defensive tackle opposite him is lined up straight-up on him, and on the snap, he fires toward the outside. That makes it an incredibly easy block for Chow, who pushes his assignment even further outside and helps free up Delaney’s long run.

And that gimmicky onside-kick installed by Jeff Palmer’s special teams unit? It comes THIS CLOSE to working.

Keslowski slowly walks back, and Ferguson sprints toward the ball, pushing it toward Cumberland’s furthest outside man. It bounces off him, and into the hands of Drew Purvis. Textbook. But the ball squirts out of Purvis’ arms, and the Pirates recover.

The Bunnies’ best shot at a two-for-one to seize quick, absolute control of the game and leave Cumberland scrambling has misfired.

First-and-10: Cumberland’s first offensive play is out of the I-formation with No. 40 lined up on the right side on the line of scrimmage. What do you know? Brant gets the ball, and he runs it to the right.

Second-and-8: Here comes that quick bubble screen to the right out of the I-formation.

Third-and-5: Three receivers in a bunch formation. Tyrese Martin gets caught looking as Hatfill rolls right. Nothing there. He comes back to the left and finds a wide-open Flier at the hash mark. Easy first down.

Another new formation on first down. A five-receiver empty set on second down that results in encroachment. Another new formation with 40 as the lead blocker to the right for Brant.

Third-and-2: Cumberland lines up in the Wishbone. No. 40 lines up on the left. Fisher coaches scream from the sidelines. Their players already know what’s coming. Diorio lines up across from Wolke. The senior explodes off the ball, much lower than Wolke, driving him off the line of scrimmage immediately. Beast. Those offseason workouts paid off. He blows up the play, and Zook comes around on the backside for a TFL.

Fourth-and-4: Five-receiver set. Seven plays in, and Cumberland has already run six different formations. The Bunnies? Just three formations in seven plays. Toward the trips-right side, Baker knows what’s coming. He might as well have been in the huddle with the Pirates. He stays inside, waits patiently as Wolke awaits the tight end dump and quickly wraps up. 

Mob pursuit. Turnover on downs.


First quarter

Three plays and a penalty later, the Bunnies are inside enemy territory with another Wilson first down. Delaney for 20 up the gut. Wilson for seven. Then four. Then six. On fourth-and-goal, Wilson for a 1-yard touchdown.

It’s methodical. It’s frustrating. It’s debilitating.

It’s exactly what the Bunnies want. It’s exactly what they’ve been doing all season.

Fisher 14

Cumberland 0


First quarter

A 12-yard pickup by Brant out of a shotgun handoff. Seven more from Brant on the next play. Another 10-yard run. Just as Palmer feared, the Pirates are trying to ground-and-pound against his team’s vulnerable run defense, and on a first down, the final play of the quarter, it looks as if Blayne Donsbach has the corner, but Tyler Martin drags him down.

Fisher 14

Cumberland 0

End of first quarter

Second-and-10: Shotgun. Trips-right. The Cumberland coaching staff knows Noah Taylor is inexperienced. Know he’s rusty. Know he hasn’t been the starting corner for two months.

They test him. The outside receiver runs a nine-yard hitch. But he’s not Hatfill’s focus. He’s looking at the middle receiver, running a wheel route up the sideline.

Cumberland hoped Taylor would get caught looking at the hitch and jump the route. But he doesn’t. He stays home. He melts inside and recovers to the outside. Precisely like he’s taught.

He backpedals. Perfect technique. He jumps up and squeezes the ball into his chest, wrestling it away from the receiver. That’s his ball.

“God Almighty, Taylor!” Jeff Palmer screams. The defensive backs coach is going bananas on the sideline. It’s exactly what they taught him to do for six days, and, at this moment, it’s the biggest play of the game. Fisher already had momentum on its side, and just eight seconds into the second quarter, the Bunnies are already about to bust it open on the back of that interception.

“The preparation just kept me on key,” Taylor will say later. “I saw (the outside receiver) run a hitch, so I knew (the inside receiver) was going to come out for a wheel, so I stuck with him instead of the other receiver. I had a huge confidence boost after that first interception.”

Now, he’s looking and playing like a true cornerback.

Almost immediately, the Bunnies respond with a 55-yard touchdown run by Wilson. It’s blocked to perfection to the left side. Baker shoves the defensive end inside; Chow pulls and kicks out the linebacker. Wilson runs seven yards before even encountering a defender, and the track sprinter shows off the burst by splitting the corner and safety, shedding an arm tackle and taking off nearly untouched.

Fisher 21

Cumberland 0


Second quarter

“It’s crazy to come to this side!” Jeff Palmer yells.

“He’s on Taylor Island right now!” Jones-Watkins screams.

Cumberland has abandoned the run game already. Four straight passes. Two toward Taylor, who is buoyed by a great pass rush and provides blanket coverage.

Eight of Cumberland’s 10 plays this drive are passing plays. Both runs are stuffed. One pass is nearly picked by Taylor off a tip — according to him, he did intercept it. Wilson and Diorio showcase their speed to team up for a sack, and Hatfill overthrows his receivers on a fourth-down “Verts” play.

“Coach, I called that pass,” Taylor tells Jeff Palmer of the second-down incompletion. The senior has picked things up at a rapid pace. He knew what was coming. He was locked in all week.

Wilson breaks off a 65-yard touchdown run. The junior is still running up the sideline. He has 40 yards still to go, but Chow sprints over to Jake Palmer. He’s all smiles and tells his coach, “I told you!”

Chow communicated with Palmer that the belly play they just ran — well, really, are still in the midst of running — would be wide open if Cumberland didn’t adjust. The Pirates didn’t adjust. They’re confused. Gassed. Touchdown.

Fisher 27

Cumberland 0


Second quarter

Cumberland makes its drive. They attack Tyrese Martin up the left sideline. They complete three passes against him. Hatfill pushes the ball downfield while also stretching the Bunnies out horizontally.

Then, they switch to Taylor’s side. They nearly catch him slacking on a second-and-goal pass attempt that falls incomplete. A better throw is a touchdown.

That better throw comes now. Taylor gets sucked inside, and Hatfill hits Connor Taylor for a 6-yard touchdown pass. Taylor was late recovering and tried to jump the route.

Fisher 27

Cumberland 7


Second quarter

It’s easy to see how the impending sequence could get lost in the shuffle looking back when this one is over. It doesn’t look that significant to the naked eye, but it’s the most vital 3-minute stretch of the Bunnies’ season. 

Their offense quickly goes three-and-out. Can’t even muster up a positive yard after a hold on the kickoff and a false start. Momentum is completely on the Pirates’ side as they nearly block a Delaney punt that comes inside Fisher’s 5-yard line.

It’s not what a playoff team does. It’s not what good teams do. Good teams put inferior opponents away in postseason games. Right now, Fisher is in a lull, and danger lies ahead with Cumberland driving and getting the ball to start the second half. With how fast the Pirates can rack up points, this could quickly become a 27-14 game and 27-21 after the first drive of the third quarter.

That’s how fast things can turn in playoff games. Teams with big leads loosen up. They hit the brakes instead of the gas pedal, and they get tight. Just ask Chiefs or Falcons fans.

But the Bunnies get lucky. A long pass up the left sideline is barely incomplete, and it would have given the Pirates the ball inside the 30. A deep out for 20 yards on a dime from Hatfill gets dropped.

Fourth-and-15: The play of the game.

Myles Gerhardt takes a pass from Hatfill just five yards up the field. But after juking, he makes both Tyler and Tyrese Martin fall down, and he has free range up the left sideline. But Delaney, playing that center field spot so well, sprints from across the middle of the field, rapidly gaining a ton of ground, dives and just barely gets his hands on Gerhardt’s back. With just enough of a push, he taps the senior out of bounds about a foot short of the sticks.

Remember what’s been repeated about every inch making a difference?

Cumberland momentum is iced.

With less than 30 seconds remaining and the ball at midfield, Deedrick is confident in his offensive line. He tells Palmer to run the midline option. The coach obliges. Delaney houses it from 46. 

Fisher 34

Cumberland 7


Second quarter

The Bunnies recover a muffed kick inside the red zone, and Delaney misses Hicks on a wide-open walk-in touchdown.

Delaney rebounds.

Those slant routes inside the 10-yard line he missed in pregame warmups? Apparently, the early jitters — or whatever they were — are gone. He fits a perfect 9-yard touchdown pass into Tyler Martin on a slant. 

Fisher 41

Cumberland 7


“They weren’t ready for it!” One Bunnie shouts.

Everyone’s happy and energized. Even Hicks, who gives Delaney slack for missing him, and Delaney shakes his head, embarrassed. Palmer comes in a bit later and also pokes fun at Delaney before turning serious.

“We’ve got to stay locked in,” says Palmer, also preaching ball security. “I loved the emotion at the start of the game. We had a little lull in the second quarter. That’s fine because I loved the emotion.

“You guys agree they can score in a hurry, right? Stay focused. Teams that win playoff games slam the door. Put the nail in the coffin. I want to send a message. Mob pursuit.”


Third quarter 

The second half is over before it starts. Tyrese Martin grabs an interception on a severely underthrown ball. The senior waits patiently for it. Even had to come back and get it.

Tyler Martin then hauls in a wide-open pass from Delaney and chugs his way 59 yards for a touchdown.

“My main concern was not dropping it,” Martin says to former teammate Dawson Purvis on the sideline upon his return. “Did I look fast?”

“No,” Purvis says.

“Yeah,” Martin replies. “I figured.”

Fisher 48

Cumberland 7


Third quarter

Running clock. Game over. Now, it’s all about staying healthy and keeping things clean.

Time for a little more fun, though. During any blowout win or loss, in the second half, junior varsity coach Ken Ingold calls the offensive plays.

After calling one in, Ingold looks to the Palmers, “I haven’t called a play in a playoff game since 1988.”

Fisher 48

Cumberland 7


The entire Bunnies’ student section, middle-schoolers, elementary students and even younger fans all rush the field in an unchaotic fashion. They wait for Palmer to release the players from the postgame huddle and, covering nearly 50 yards of ground in a large circle, they perform “Bunnie Jacks.”

All as one. It’s safe to say Fisher football has reached its next level of success.

4:36 p.m.

What lies ahead will be an even bigger challenge for the Fisher coaching staff.

Argenta-Oreana, the south bracket’s No. 1 seed, is coming off a 50-10 thrashing of Cerro Gordo/Bement, and the Bombers are rolling at 10-0. Another LOVC team, A-O is headed by Rantoul alum Steve Kirk, and it also features a deadly passing attack but an even more dominant rushing attack than Cumberland’s.

The winner has the inside track to a state semifinal berth, with No. 4 Red Hill and No. 5 Madison suffering upset losses. Find a way to get past A-O on the road, and Fisher gets a home playoff game in the quarterfinals.

“We’re looking forward to next week,” Tyler Martin says. “We’re going to get the job done and keep it rolling. We’re ready.”

The winning feeling is starting to sink in. Everyone is smiling. Even Tyler Wilson.

Palmer has his group on a knee near midfield. He tells them how proud he is. How awesome it is that they’re just the second team in school history with eight wins, joining the 2005 team that finished 8-4 and got to the quarterfinals. It’s an amazing accomplishment they’ll always remember — to become only the second team in program history to win a playoff game.

Of course, they want more. Postgame interviews will follow for Palmer and a select few of the Bunnies’ top performers. Plenty of media coverage will be coming their way before the Bunnies make the quick 40-minute drive to Argenta for a 1 p.m. kick Saturday.

But right now, they get to soak it all in and enjoy themselves.

“Look around, guys,” Palmer says, face cramping from the smile on his face. Every one of them looks in the stands. Eyes glaze over the field. Finally, to the scoreboard. An entire week of preparation led to this moment.

“You just clobbered a team in the IHSA playoffs, baby.”

Contact Zack Carpenter at and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports


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