CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Central football coach Brad Dixon pulled his starting seniors, one by one, on the final possession of Friday's Class 1A state championship game.
Running backs Cole Williams and Chayse Houston were substituted. Then came off Tristan Brocksieck, who was followed by Noah Strohkirch. Quarterback Eric Jones also came off in the final minutes.
As each of the seniors came off the field, they received a hug and a few words from Dixon on the sidelines. By the time their embrace ended, most of the players had tears in their eyes.
Each of them wished they were coming off the field in better circumstances instead of a 44-6 loss to Forreston, but they also reflected on the moment.
"It was a lot of emotions," Strohkirch said. "Just the thought that high school football is over, and we've done something that no other team has done before us. It's a joy, but at the same time, a lot of sadness."
"It was a little rough knowing it was the last time I was walking off the field," Houston said. "It was emotional, but I was grateful for it. I wouldn't trade that for anything."
The group of seniors experienced a 5-5 season as freshmen that ended with a 49-7 thumping by Tuscola in the first round of the playoffs. Three seasons later, they guided the Panthers to 27 victories, and they became the first football team in school history to reach the state championship game.
"I just remember coming off the field after that Tuscola game and seeing the seniors crying," Williams said. "I didn't want that. I wanted to make it here. We did, but it wasn't the way I wanted it to go."
The next step for the Panthers will be leaving the field as state champions rather than runner-ups. This group of seniors have set the bar to help future Panthers make it happen.
"The younger guys believe it's possible," Dixon said. "It seems like when something is out there and coach says, ‘It'd be great to play for a state championship,' they understand we have that chance. These seniors have set just a great example for them."
The departing seniors hope to see the players behind them capture that elusive title.
"With teams before us, they put in the work since the start of the program," Strohkirch said. "You put on the Panther jersey and just love it. To break down a barrier here means a lot, and you hope the teams after us can get it done."