DECATUR — There's no formula for success, no secret sauce that gets a football team to the championship game each fall or sets a team on a deep postseason run.
But there are things that attribute to long-standing success, little nuances that go beyond star-studded players.
It's been happening for years at Maroa-Forsyth, where coach Josh Jostes has instilled a state-renowned winning tradition.
At MacArthur, Derek Spates has built a culture of winning, making the back-to-back 1-8 seasons the outliers, not the Class 5A second-round postseason appearance this year.
Both got buy-ins from their players, parents and community and each took a radically different path to being named Herald & Review Macon County Football Co-Coaches of the Year.
Restocking the cupboard
When Maroa lost to Deer Creek-Mackinaw in the state championship game, those on the outside of the program may not have expected the Trojans to march back through the Class 2A playoffs for a repeat visit to the state title game.
Gone were the leaders in last season's state championship game in four categories: Passing, rushing, receiving and tackles.
Jostes plugged a sophomore quarterback, first-team all-area Ian Benner, into the lineup when camp broke this fall and a running back in Deondre Gregory who had success last season, but wasn't the feature back — that was Jaxson Nelson.
None if it mattered. There was no Jack Hockaday, but there was a buy-in from the community, and those paid dividends.
“Our kids work really hard 49 weeks a year to put themselves in that position," Jostes said. "We're blessed we have a community and families and kids who are willing to do that. That's why we don't have those big drop-offs maybe when the talent level is not as good. They've still invested their five years and made themselves good football players, even if it's only a one-year shot for them."
The hard work culminated this year into a state championship game appearance, in which Maroa lost a back-and-forth game to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley that came down to the final possession.
But perhaps none of that run happens — not the drubbing of previously unbeaten Athens in Week 6 or the mud-bowl in the sleet against Shelbyville in the semifinals — without a 47-6 loss to Williamsville in Week 3.
Jostes and his staff adjusted their plan after the game. They simplified things for the team, Benner specifically, and they reduced the number of two-way starters — that allowed Gregory to turn into a full-blown offensive force.
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Adaptation: It started from the top and trickled all the way down.
"My staff does a great job," Jostes said. "We went back to the basics, coached our kids up, made things simpler for Ian and by the end of the year he was really playing at a high level."
Taking the lumps
Making the playoffs this year was no anomaly. Since Spates took over the Generals have been in the postseason six of his 10 years at the helm.
This group of seniors had always known MacArthur as a playoff-bound team — not a basement dweller.
Sure, the back-to-back 1-8 seasons were tough for the seniors, but they paid dividends.
“The one thing I told my guys the last couple years is it’s going to be a shame for you guys to endure the things you’ve endured. We were on the ends of some pretty bad poundings," Spates said. "I told them, it’s going to be a shame if you didn’t come back out. But for you guys who stayed, when you’re the seniors or juniors it’s a different story. You will get to experience what I felt like what was going to be a pretty good team this year.”
When MacArthur stormed out of the gates to a 53-0 win over Eisenhower, there may have even still been some skepticism, but not for Spates. He knew when last year ended that this year had the potential to be special.
“I mean, you look at the guys who we had," Spates said. "It was almost like you had to wait for the reinforcements and wait for the help to come. We needed to wait for another class of kids to come up. I knew dealing with both Brummetts was going to be a handful (for opposing teams)."
Any remaining skepticism from those outside the program was quickly vanished in Week 2 when the Generals welcomed Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin to town and sent the Cyclones home with a 34-32 loss.
MacArthur officially made itself a priority at the top of the Central State 8 Conference on the way to an 8-3 record, and a first-round home playoff win over Peoria Notre Dame before losing to Washington in the second round.
The Generals weren't intimidated.
“This group of kids, they didn't lack confidence," Spates said. "I couldn’t tell them anything to make them think they couldn't play with anybody. This group of kids, they weren’t afraid of anybody. Even in the three games we lost this year, those teams were better than us that night, but our kids would have said the next morning, ‘Let’s strap it up and play again and let’s see.’”