When you think of Interstate Eight Conference football in the late 1990s and into the 2000s and even into the 2010s, it's hard not to have two programs come to mind - Coal City and Wilmington. And, the head coaches for those two programs - Lenny Onsen and Jeff Reents - are forever linked in I-8 lore.
It is fitting, then, that both men have been selected for induction into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame. The induction will be held March 30 at the Hilton Inn Garden Hotel in Champaign.
Onsen, who was a member of the first Coal City varsity football team, coached for his alma mater for 31 years, the last 17 as a head coach. His head coaching record was 127-60, including 14 playoff appearances and a Class 4A state runner-up in 2004.
"I had no idea I was nominated, so it came as a big surprise," Onsen said about his induction. "It was a very nice feeling and I am very fortunate.
"It's a privelege and an honor to be selected. I am very lucky to have gotten a job in my hometown. I had a lot of great coaches and players, but the thing that hits me most is the support of my family. When I think of the time I spent coaching football, my wife took care of most of the stuff at home, but she was still very supportive of my coaching. As I said, I am very fortunate."
Onsen's annual games against Wilmington were circled on the calendar by nearly everyone, and rarely did they disappoint. In 2004, both teams entered the Week 9 game with 8-0 records and both were ranked No. 1 in their respective classes, Coal City in 4A and Wilmington in 3A. Coal City took a 4-0 halftime lead on a pair of safeties before Wilmington rallied in the second half for a 20-4 win and the conference title.
"So many years, we would go far in the playoffs, get to the quarterfinals or semifinals or even the title game," Onsen said. "But, we would be second in the conference to Wilmington. I think it helped us in the playoffs. You were ready for the playoffs after a Week 9 game against Wilmington, that's for sure.
"Me and Jeff did quite a bit of battling, and we've done a lot of chatting. There's a lot of respect there on both sides. I would always call or text him and wish him good luck the Friday of a game, and he would do the same. It's definitely neat that we are going in in the same class."
Reents, a Morris graduate who has amassed a 222-59 record in 25 years at Wilmington, has guided his team to 23 straight playoff appearances, a Class 3A state title in 2014 and a Class 3A runner-up in 2003.
He, too, was surprised at his selection.
"I knew I was eligible after 25 years, but I didn't know I was nominated," he said. "It turns out I was nominated by [former Wilmington assistant and Morris grad] Kevin Feeney and by Mike Lalor, who was the coach at Stillman Valley when they beat us for the title in 2003. Lalor is going in this year, too, so that's a neat thing.
"It's definitely an honor to go in with Lenny. Coal City has always been good to me, going back to when Ken W. Miller was the head coach. When we played Coal City, it was always a hard-fought, clean game. A lot of the kids have known each other from playing different sports growing up."
Reents has also had the distinction of coaching both a former NFL player - Damien Anderson - and a Major League Baseball player - Tanner Roark.
"You have to be lucky," he said. "I have been lucky to have the same guys - Barry Southall, Rob Murphy and Bob Bolser - for 25 years. I was lucky that Wilmington High School took a chance on a 24-year-old kid with not much experience and that I have the staff I have. And I have been lucky to have the players I have had. Damien was on one of my first teams and we made the quarterfinals. Things kept going and then we had the team with Tanner and Tony Vercelli [who played baseball at Northwestern]. Then we won a title in 2014. It's been a great run here."
Reents credits his upbringing in Morris for some of his success.
"Coming through Morris, there were expectations for the football team," he said. "Coaches [Dan] Darlington, [Denny] Steele and [Keith] Laughary built it and they expected excellence. When I got to Wilmington, I wanted to bring that type of attitude.
"And, coming from that, I know what our players are feeling when they have pressure from the community and past players to keep it going. So, from that background, and from coaches Murphy and Southall, we don't want to hear excuses here. We don't want to hear about the problem. If there's a problem, we want to fix it."
Although he has been on the sideline for 25 years, Reents doesn't see the end in sight.
"I always say that circumstances change all the time," he said. "Right now, I have great support from my family. I have great support from the school. [Principal] Scott Maupin and [athletic director] Brian Goff [another Morris graduate] give our program a lot of support and we still have a lot of kids coming out for football.
"I still have a lot of fire for those Friday nights. It's on a per year basis, but I still have a lot of energy for it and I don't see it ending too soon."