GODFREY • If one didn’t arrive in time to see the throng of red-clad onlookers stretching along several blocks of State Street on Saturday, cheering as the Alton High football team rode by in a school bus, the scene just before kickoff at Jim Wigger Stadium would have been a clear indication that this was not an every-week high school football game.
Fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder into the home bleachers. Some spilled onto the grass hill on either side. At the center of the mass, closest to the field, Alton students formed a mass of red clothing, flailing limbs and raucous cheers that looked like something out of an SEC stadium.
When the Alton players finally ran down the steps to the left of the fans and onto the field, with receiver Kevin Caldwell Jr. leading the way and waving a red “Alton” flag in the air, the fans’ enthusiasm boiled into a frenzy.
Alton’s matchup with Lincoln-Way West was the team’s first home playoff game since 2006, and its first game in the second round of the Illinois Class 7A state tournament since 1992. The past two seasons, the Redbirds went 1-8 and 0-9.
A win Saturday would put them in the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
Mark Cappel, the superintendent of the Alton Public School District, said he had never seen such excitement surrounding an Alton game in his 30-plus years working in the district.
“I have never seen this many fans at one time in this stadium,” Cappel said.
“It was like no other,” Caldwell said of the Redbirds’ entrance. “Best feeling I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
The crowd maintained its pregame enthusiasm through the majority of the first half. Soon, however, it became clear that Alton was outmatched. The Redbirds’ magical season ended with a 42-13 loss.
Lincoln-Way West began its first six possessions of the game on the Alton side of the field. By the time the Redbirds ran their first play on the Warriors side of midfield, they trailed 21-0.
Despite the bad start, Alton didn’t roll over.
In the second quarter, following three straight touchdown drives from the Warriors, Alton’s Kiondray Samelton snagged an interception of Lincoln-Way West’s Anthony Senerchia. The Redbirds parlayed the momentum into an 80-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 28-yard pass from Andrew Jones to Campbell, to cut the deficit to 14.
The home fans’ spirits were revived, but not for long.
Lincoln-Way West’s Alex Croft returned the ensuing kickoff more than 60 yards to the Alton 35-yard line. Running back Caleb Marconi scored his third of four touchdowns shortly thereafter, and the Warriors took a 28-7 lead into halftime.
Lincoln-Way West’s opening possession of the second half, a five-play, 58-yard scoring drive, seemed to seal Alton’s fate.
In the game’s final seconds, as Lincoln-Way West lined up to kneel on the ball for the game’s last play, the Alton fans — no longer quite shoulder-to-shoulder, but still well represented — rose to their feet. The applause started slow but crescendoed as the Alton defense jogged off the field. The PA announcer thanked the Redbirds for a great season.
On the field, however, there was no hint of solace in the team’s best postseason finish in 25 years. As Alton coach Eric Dickerson addressed the team, tears rolled down the faces of seemingly every player.
Some teams might have just been happy to be there, playing in front of the biggest home crowd of their high school careers, in the second round of the playoffs following two abysmal seasons. Dickerson knew that wouldn’t be the case for the Redbirds. After all, moral victories don’t transform a team from 0-9 to a playoff participant.
“This team was never satisfied with anything,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson, too, said he was disappointed with Saturday’s result. But he knew how much this run has meant to the Alton program — and to surrounding community. After he addressed the team, he pulled the seniors aside and told them as much, thanking them for leading the team’s storybook turnaround.
“He told us that we changed the foundation, and we got all these people here, and we had a good season, nothing to hang your heads about,” Campbell said.
Dickerson vowed that Alton won’t go another 25 years between playoff wins. He intends to make November home games, and crazy crowds like Saturday’s, a regular occurrence at Alton.
But, before he turns his attention to future season, Dickerson said plans to take some time to reflect on this one.
“It’s just an experience that I know I won't forget, and I know those boys won’t forget either.”