Thirty-seven losses seems like a lot, and it is, especially when you are experiencing every single one of them first hand the way the Litchfield High School football team and their fans have.
But in the big picture, the Purple Panthers aren’t even close to the level of futility that Savanna had to persevere through during their streak, which lasted an astounding seven years and 63 games. It could have been more too, but the powers that be opted to co-op with Mount Carroll and Thomson after the 2002 season, thus icing the jaw-dropping milestone in its tracks.
While loss after loss (after loss after loss after loss… you get the picture) couldn’t have been pleasant for the players and coaches of Savanna, their passion for the game was what captivated sportswriters from the Chicago Tribune, Sports Illustrated and others from all over the country.
“I’ve coached at other schools where we won all the time,” then fourth year Head Coach Dave Baisden told Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly. “Yet I had kids quit every year. I’ve never had a regular quit on me here. They keep coming to practice every day, and I love them for that.”
Similar stories could probably be told about some of the other schools that have experienced more than their fair share of losing on the gridiron, like Peoria Woodruff and Machesney Park Harlem, both of whom lost 47 straight, a state record until Savanna surpassed the mark, or Joliet Central, who lost 57 times between 2010 and 2016. And yes, the same can be said of Litchfield to a certain extent, although they did have some roster attrition during the season, which did not make winning any easier. Still, the ones who stuck around earned the undying gratitude of their fans and their coach.
“I will miss coming off the field on Friday nights after the game with the young men that stood beside me and battled sometimes against impossible odds,” said Coach Tom Priddle, who resigned in November after the district informed him they would like to go in a different direction with the program. “I would like to say thank you for everyone who supported the Purple Panthers the last few years. I was lucky enough to have the best parents during my stint as coach. I wish the Purple Panthers the best of luck in the future, whatever that may hold.”
Dan Carlson, Priddle’s replacement and a former coach at Springfield Southeast, North Mac and Collinsville, will be the fifth to take the reigns of the program since current athletic director Mark Elvers resigned before the 2010 season after 11 years.
It will be up to him to not only stop the streak, but to build a culture that has been fragmented by apathy toward the program and lack of participation, something that doomed Savanna 20 years ago.
While points and stops were tough to come by, guts were one thing that Litchfield had plenty of this year, especially from their seniors. After stepping into the quarterback spot last year following an injury to the expected starter in the opening game, Clayton Walch had the best season of his four year career and made huge strides over his junior campaign. Walch completed 58 passes (24 more than the year before) for 806 yards and three touchdowns, compared to 295 yards and no touchdowns in 2018. While his passing was much better, his work in the rushing game really stood out as he led the team with 328 yards on 140 carries, with four touchdowns. While those numbers don’t compare with the 1,000 yard rushers of some teams, it’s a huge step for Walch, whose rushing numbers include negative yardage from sacks, and the Panthers, who only ran for 43 yards total in 2018.
Walch was also fourth on the team in tackles per game (3.0), with three of his senior teammates ahead of him. Hunter Nieman would be third with 5.3 tackles per game, while Dylan Maxwell and Jefferson Thomas took the top two spots with 10.5 and 6.0 per contest respectively. Both Maxwell and Thomas would earn all-conference honors this season, with Maxwell earning a second team linebacker nod and Thomas making the third team on the defensive line. The group also manned the offensive line as well, with fellow senior Austin DeWitt joining them.
Another senior, John Corso, would be fifth in tackles with 14 and was a solid contributor on offense after playing soccer the last few seasons. Corso would have 35 yards and one touchdown in the running game and caught nine passes for 80 yards and another score as a receiver. Senior Chase Dealey also contributed in the passing game, catching three passes for 48 yards.
Sophomores Blaine Stewart and Colin Becker led the team in receiving with 30 catches and more than 400 yards between them. Stewart, who also saw a few snaps at quarterback, led the team with 16 catches for 239 yards, while Colin Becker had 14 catches for 232 yards. Drew Hartzell would add in five catches for 32 yards, but did most of his work in the running game as he rushed 55 times for 122 yards and a touchdown.
While Litchfield’s 76 points were well below the second lowest point total in the SCC, the total was a vast improvement over last year’s mark of 16 points in nine games. After being shutout in seven games in 2018, Litchfield failed to score in just two contests in 2019 and equalled their previous seasons point total in a single game twice.
After 37 straight losses, there are still a lot of needs for the Panthers going forward, but the biggest one is building enthusiasm in the program and increasing the number of players on the roster. Savanna had the same problem, until the 84-year-old program was ended for the new co-op.
“They say we suck, but it’s a lot more chicken to not try,” lineman Rich Lawfer told Reilly about the students who hung out at “Dirtball Wall” and laughed at Savanna’s losing streak. “It takes guts to come out and try to end it.”
Litchfield showed they have guts last year. Now they just have to show that they can do what Savanna couldn’t and put an end to the streak.
Rick Reilly’s article on Savanna here: https://vault.si.com/vault/2002/10/21/you-cant-call-them-losers.
2019 Litchfield Football
8/30 at Greenville 0-37
9/6 Gillespie 6-49
9/13 Southwestern 12-54
9/20 at Staunton 16-48
9/27 Vandalia 0-59
10/4 Roxana 14-47
10/11 at Pana 6-61
10/18 at Hillsboro 16-59
10/25 Carlinville 6-68
Totals (0-9) 76-482