MONTICELLO — Cully Welter made it a point to absorb everything during the week leading up to the Class 3A state championship.
He watched his players revel in the opportunity to play for a chance to stand at the mountain top as state champions. When Welter stepped onto the field at Memorial Stadium, he soaked in the moment, one that he's been in before.
Coaching a state championship team isn't new for him. He did it five times at Aledo with three wins. This year, he led the Sages through a perfect season capped off by a win over Byron for Monticello's first football state title to earn the Herald & Review Area Football Coach of the Year.
His last state championship came in 2002, but Welter never felt that longing to prove that he could do it again.
“I feel pressure to do right by our kids — that’s what motivates me," Welter said. "I do get nervous and I do get worried and I do stress out, but it’s never because: Hey, we need to get to the quarterfinals because we’ve been in the second round three or four times in a row. I never felt there was any sort of monkey on our back. That’s not the kind of validation I’m looking for as a coach. There are more important things, even though I do want to see the kids be successful."
Welter's fourth state championship wasn't unlike his first in Aledo. It was the first time a starving Monticello football fan base got to feel the elation of winning, and it showed with a packed crowd in the home-side stands at Memorial Stadium.
“I think it would be a disservice to say it’s a large crowd only because we’re 20 minutes away," he said. "Certainly there would have been a few who wouldn’t have made the trip to DeKalb, but I think it was much more important to the community than I had any conceivable notion."
But just how Monticello got to the point to send fans to lunacy and have 15 seniors leave the program with a first-place trophy came down to two key elements: Playing as a whole and an unwavering confidence in themselves.
It's easy to pay lip service or be disingenuous about truly believing every football cliche. How many people really buy into the mantra that hangs on every poster in weight rooms and locker rooms?
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Welter had a hunger to get his players to back one another, and to truly buy in to those mantras.
“I think what I’ve been craving is more getting these kids to the point where they have the passion to play for one another," he said. "I really saw that. I’ve seen that grow over the years, but I really saw that this year where the kids were very unselfish and really put the team first and just cared about each other."
Welter has been fostering the desire for his players to play for the team, for each other, for years. If they didn't, how would the Sages have overcome an injury to Brandon Burton early in the season that took a piece from inexperienced and undersized offensive and defensive lines? How would Monticello have picked up for the loss of defensive leader Cole Reedy in the first round of the playoffs, the cold, rainy weather in the semifinals against Carlinville, or a late fumble in the state championship game by Alek Bundy when the team was clinging to a lead?
"He really made sure that the seniors knew that it was their team and their time and that they really needed to take care of business," Reedy said, "and to make sure they're doing the best they can do because everyone knows there really is no next year as a senior."
There was also a never-say-die attitude in Monticello. No one worried after Bundy handed the ball back to Byron late in the game. Instead, he hawked a game-sealing interception.
“That’s the other trait that I felt was indicative of this team," Welter said. "I think it played out in the state championship game where we just never got rattled. I don’t think the weather affected us. Our kids have this inherent confidence in themselves where outside forces don’t affect them. They’re going to do what they do and they’re going to feel confident in what they do. Even if things look bleak, they’re going to hang in there."
Things are a little different now for Welter than his previous state championships, but a 16-year gap has a way of doing that. This trip to a championship, for as much as he enjoyed the ride and the feeling of elation, was as enjoyable for Cully Welter the spectator as it was for Cully Welter the coach.
He watched keenly as his players and coaching staff celebrated and felt the same feeling he's felt three times prior.
“I think when you’re younger your goals are a little bit more paramount," Welter said. "When you get into coaching certainly you want to impact kids, but you also have your own personal goals. Those fall by the wayside as you get older and see what your purpose is as a coach. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being part of it, but it’s so much nicer watching them be successful."