DEKALB -- Zach Zehr waited long enough.

With about three minutes remaining, he threw on a throwback. The Arcola coach popped on his good luck sweater, one that stood the test of time and had been in these moments before.

“It was Byron Bradford’s,” Zehr said of the coach who helped Steve Thomas and Arcola win three championships. “He comes into my office all the time throughout the season, and he wasn’t able to come up today, but his sweatshirt could. We figured we’d break that out toward the end of the game.”

On a team where so many players have connections to past teams from fathers or uncles who have played, Zehr has found his connections to Arcola’s past in the short three years he’s been there.

It’s important for Zehr, who grew up in a town similar to Arcola’s size. He knows how much the football history means to the town and how deep it runs.

But he also knows there are some players who don’t have those connections or know what the Riders have accomplished in their 131 years as a program.

“We’ve done a lot – actually (Mike Monahan) and Randy Rothrock have done a ton of all the history stuff,” Zehr said. “I knew coming in, just a great history of Arcola and the tradition of the program. I’m from Deer Creek, I wanted to bring that back and make them aware of it, and get some pride.

Arcola brought back the 1985 championship team for a game this year, and the Riders’ website is one of the most comprehensive in the state. It’s an effort to help his players understand the state history.

“Some of that stuff, they literally might not know any of it,” he said. “I just wanted to bring their attention to how big of a deal it is to everybody in town and they can be a part of it for something that is huge for us this year.”

Riders’ journey

Throughout their JFL days, Arcola’s senior class had plenty of reasons to believe they were destined for something special.

“I think we didn’t lose sixth, seventh or eighth (grade),” Wyatt Fishel said. “We’d always see it then, we talk about it as kids.”

Then came high school and playing varsity almost right away. Zehr admitted many of the then-sophomores probably weren’t physically ready for that level of play.

“In my first year, these guys were all sophomores,” he said. “It really took us taking our lumps and a good handful of these guys weren’t ready to play on both sides of the ball at the varsity level as sophomores. But the mental experience, the mental gain from it was unbelievable.”

That 3-6 season was a bit of a reality check. Fishel said seeing what it took to win games blurred the state championship goal for a while.

“That’s obviously a big gap,” he said about the 3-6 season. “You’re shooting for playoffs at that point.”

Then came last year, a 10-1 season that Arcola felt ended too soon. The Riders were down 21-0 to Camp Point Central, fought back to take a lead only to lose the second-round playoff game 41-34 in the final minutes on a 85-yard kick return.

“It was a complete motivator,” Fishel said. “It was almost our pure motivation for this whole team. I’m not sure we still don’t have that taste out of our mouth, but obviously we got a little better taste that overshadows that now.”

Weaponized speed

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It’s easy to see Clayton Strader’s breakaway speed when he rushes into open field.

But it’s a little different moving around the pocket and avoiding tacklers while trying to read receivers downfield.

He had several of those moments on Friday where he eluded outstretched arms and turn what looked to be sure sacks into positive yardage.

“Last year,” Strader said of when he started learning how to avoid sacks. “Once we started getting into Arthur and Cerro Gordo and all them, that’s what I started feeling it.”

He has an arm, too

Both of Strader’s touchdown passes were into the wind.

The quarterback is noticed more for his blazing speed, but he finished the year 54-for-92 passing for 1,028 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Even on his touchdown pass to Seaman, he surprised himself.

“Oh yeah, that play works on our scout team almost every time. Rolled right and saw him,” he said. “Well, usually does because I can never throw a spiral, but I did throw a spiral that time. It ended up being a good pass.”

Special attention to detail

Last season, Arcola wanted to give many of its two-way starters a brief breather during special teams.

After the Camp Point Central game last year, they started to rethink that mindset. Fishel was brought in as the punt returner, and the starters were kept on the field.

The attention to special teams paid off in the biggest moments on Friday. Chase Strader recognized an Arcola punt touched a Stark County player to recover the live ball, and Clayton Strader’s punt in the third quarter pinned Stark County at its own 1-yard line.

“Over the offseason, we talked with coach a lot,” Fishel said. “We didn’t necessarily overlook special teams last year, but we didn’t see it like a third of a football game like it is. The coaches did a good job of making the right moves.”

Doing it all

Fishel’s senior year is a little hard to wrap your head around.

The running back, linebacker and punt returner put together of the best seasons, and he only played about the equivalent of nine whole games.

He rushed for 2,030 yards and 33 touchdowns on just 161 carries, an incredible 12.69 yards for carry. Fishel led the defense in tackles, smashing into opponents for 107 tackles.

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