Home is where the playoffs are for Independence’s history-making football team.
The Patriots set a program first when they hosted a playoff game in Coal City last week, beating Shady Spring 73-7.
“A lot of people in the community were excited about us hosting a playoff game and it showed,” Lilly said. “It was a packed house. The place was electric. I never saw any final numbers, but our game was second (among tickets sold, including all classes). I think it helped that our rival (Shady Spring) was our opponent. But it was good for our program, good for our school, good for our community and good for the county.”
Which is just the way Lilly and the Patriots planned it.
Being home for the playoffs was the way Lilly said would open the door to playoff success.
The Patriots advanced to the quarterfinals last year, but that was due to a Covid forfeiture by No. 3 Frankfort, allowing the Patriots to advance to eventual champion Fairmont Senior.
But Lilly hardly acknowledges that forfeit win.
But he acknowledges that 43-15 loss at Fairmont, and Independence was in the game into the second half, trailing just 15-8.
As soon as the game ended, Lilly addressed his troops.
“I told them how important home field advantage is,” Lilly said. “I said if we are going to be anywhere near the Fairmont Seniors, the Bluefields or the Bridgeports, we’re going to have to get home field advantage if we can.”
One by one they mowed down opponent at a record rate for the school.
“Every week we emphasized the importance of winning, to try to keep on pace for hosting in the playoffs,” Lilly said.
Despite losing a game with high-ranked Poca to Covid, Independence finished 8-0. With Herbert Hoover and Poca riding the one and two lines in the Class AA ratings, Independence got a break when Poca and Hoover played late in the season. Hoover’s victory allowed Independence to jump into the two spot. Ironically, Poca is still alive on the other side of the bracket, Hoover is eliminated.
You can argue the actual validity of hosting a playoff, given the disappearing act of the other three teams at the top of the Class AA ratings with Independence. No. 1 Hoover, No. 3 Point Pleasant and No. 4 Lincoln all lost.
Add to that, Class A No. 1 Cameron also lost to No. 16 Gilmer County.
There is, of course, a caveat.
The teams they lost to (Hoover to Fairmont Senior, Point Pleasant to Bluefield and Lincoln to Frankfort) are typically at the top of the ratings.
“It was just a strange year and a strange bracket,” Lilly said, “but I’m sure if you ask Freddie (Simon, Bluefield’s coach) or if you ask Nick (Bartic, the Fairmont Senior) they’d rather be playing these games at home.”
Independence is on the verge of accomplishing another school first.
If the Patriots can beat Roane County Friday night in the Class AA quarterfinals, in what should be another electric atmosphere in Coal City, it can reach the semifinals for the first time in the 16-team playoff era. The winner will be practicing through the Thanksgiving holiday.
The last time the Patriots got to the semis was in 1986, the school’s first undefeated season.
Although rated No. 2 in Class AA as well, that Patriots team didn’t carve up opponents, a la the 2021 team, never scoring more than 28 points in a game. Coach Wayne Peters' next-to-last squad at Independence, did, however, have a top-notch defense, and a 12-0 win over Man on Nov. 14 in the first round of the playoffs at Van Meter Stadium was the squad’s fourth shutout.
They were upset the next week, on a Saturday, by Tucker County at Van Meter Stadium, 20-19. Tucker had beaten Valley the week before in the quarterfinals.
Until last week, that 1986 playoff victory over Man was the only one in school history. Counting Tucker, there had been 11 straight losses. Indy is 2-11 all-time in the postseason.
“We had coach Peters come back (for the Wyoming East game to finish off the 8-0 season). We wanted to honor that first undefeated team,” Lilly said.