The video from Western Illinois University’s football locker room after Saturday’s 27-24 win over Youngstown State showed happy players dancing, and their head coach right in the middle of it, showing off his moves.
It was the first win of the season for the Leathernecks, who started 0-5 in an unusual spring season brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the first win for the program since November, 2019.
In a season when everyone is getting tested, and then tested again, and then tested again, a season that could get shut down at any time, any victory is meaningful.
That’s why you dance when you win.“I’ve been in some locker rooms in my time,” Head Coach Jared Elliott said after Saturday’s game.
“Guys, that was 0-5 and they won their first game. I don’t think I’ve been in a better (locker room). That just says a lot about the character of this team.”
Teams like Western Illinois, which play in the Football Championship Subdivision of the NCAA, didn’t have a fall season like the bigger Football Bowl Subdivision teams. They opted for an eight-game spring schedule, which meant Saturday’s win came on Easter weekend.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a little strange,” Western Illinois quarterback Connor Sampson said. “But we’re just happy getting a chance to play football.”
The FCS season is a cautionary tale to what might have been had all of college football gone along with some of the suggestions of last summer, when the call was for everyone to wait to play until the spring, or at least starting the season in early January.
Some schools opted out before the season even started. Others have played a few games, and then decided to call off the rest of the season — Illinois State defeated the Leathernecks, 26-18, on March 20, then two days later school officials said they were canceling the rest of the season because of health concerns.
Western Illinois has been able to get in all of its games so far — the Leathernecks’ opener against South Dakota back on Feb. 19 was postponed, but was rescheduled for April 17.
“Guys are being smart,” Sampson said. “They value football so much, they don’t want to miss it.”
But the Leathernecks haven’t had anything to show for their work until Saturday’s win. They’ve been competitive, but it hasn’t translated to victories.
That’s why you dance when you win.
“As much as our players have put in during COVID, all of the sacrifices we made, all the protocols — it’s put a lot more on your players than it normally would,” Elliott said. “To see those guys get rewarded with a win, with all of the hard work, as a coach there’s no greater feeling than seeing that.”
“It means everything,” said wide receiver Tony Tate, who caught two touchdown passes and had a kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Leathernecks have had their chances this season. They led 24-20 in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Missouri State before giving up 10 points in the final 6 ½ minutes. They had a chance to go into halftime of the March 27 game against Northern Iowa tied at 10, but had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown.
“You know, we just look at all of the things we can correct,” Tate said. “We know that there’s just a couple of plays where we’re not putting it all together.”
Saturday’s win wasn’t perfect, but the Leathernecks learned how to turn momentum. They held the Penguins to just a field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter to trail just 24-13, then Tate had his 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
“I think that was huge,” Elliott said. “I told our staff that was one of the biggest plays. You know if they tack on seven there, things could have gotten out of control.”
It’s a season that hasn’t gotten out of control for the Leathernecks. Their season will end in two weeks, but a win is a win, whether it’s in November or April.
“I think it means a lot,” Elliott said. “It doesn’t mean anything in terms of playoffs. To this football team, I think it means a hell of a lot. It really does.”
It’s why you dance.
John Bohnenkamp is an award winning sports writer/editor and is a regular contributor to Pen City Current.