Forreston proved the doubters wrong on Saturday and is now one win away from its third IHSA Class 1A state championship in five years.
The Cardinals went into rival territory and beat Lena-Winslow 34-28. Forreston jumped out to a 20-6 lead before needing a kick return touchdown by Dom Christensen, with 4 minutes to play, to put the Panthers away.
Head coach Kyle Zick was visibly emotional as the clock ticked to zero.
"What gets you so emotional is seeing the kids afterwards," said Zick. "They put in so much time, they do all the work. To see them with that pure joy on their face makes it all worth while. It's kind of why you do it."
"It was our motto all year. It was earn it. We were saying, you guys want to go to the carpet? You want to play at (University of Illinois)? You got to earn it, it's as simple as that. Earn it through hard work. Earn it through all the time you spent in the summer doing everything and we did that. So, like I said, couldn't be prouder, but we got one more to go."
Ogle County could be home to a pair of state champions come Friday. Byron is back in the title game for the first time since 1999.
The Tigers have been the top-ranked team in IHSA Class 3A all season long and for good reason. Byron shutout Herscher 42-0 for its second clean sheet of the postseason. The Tigers will be tested against a Monticello team that is averaging 50.5 PPG in the playoffs.
Head coach Jeff Boyer says his team is up to the challenge.
"We've been so close a couple times and I've had some teams I thought could've won the state championship," said Boyer. "Especially last year with the tough loss to I.C. (Catholic) in the closing seconds. For this group of kids to come back and make it to the state championship is a huge accomplishment."
Senior Zak Alberts echoes Boyer's comments.
"It feels great to get the one in the semifinal," said Alberts. "But our goal from the beginning wasn't to win a semifinal game.We're trying to win a state championship. So, we're going to celebrate tonight but we're going to stay focused all throughout next week so we can achieve our goal."
Forreston will face Camp Point (Central) on Friday at 10:00 am. It will be the Panthers first ever appearance in the state championship.
Byron will have a chance for its second title when the Tigers take on Monticello at 4:00 pm. The Tigers beat the Sages 21-20 in last year's second round match-up.