ROCKFORD – Fifty-one miles of asphalt, stop lights and construction zones separate the football fields of Rockford Boylan and Cary-Grove.
Yet C-G offensive lineman Michael Gomez and a few of his teammates made the drive west to Titan Stadium on Saturday.
Because they wanted to see Prairie Ridge try to knock off the team that had ended their season seven days earlier. Because they wanted to support the last team standing in a crowded, competitive Fox Valley Conference.
And when Boylan rallied to beat Prairie Ridge, 21-17, in the Class 6A quarterfinal, Gomez could not help but empathize with his conference rivals.
"I feel bad," Gomez said as he stood behind the Prairie Ridge sideline, "because I grew up with a lot of those kids. I know Shane [Evans] and I know Colin Leverenz. That's the reason I came out here, to see the Fox Valley excel."
Almost every year, the conference does excel.
But this year, for only the second time since 2009, the Fox Valley will not feature a team in a state championship game.
Credit Prairie Ridge for giving the conference a shot this season. The Wolves were 2-4 in early October before finding their stride and winning their next five games, including playoff contests against Lakes and Marmion Academy.
By halftime Saturday, the No. 14 seed Wolves had established a 10-point lead against No. 1-seed Boylan thanks to a dependable running game and a disciplined defense. But Boylan earned the top seed in the bracket for a reason, and they regrouped in the second half to improve to 51-1 since the start of the 2010 season.
"We fought the whole time," Evans said after playing his final game for the Wolves. "It didn't turn out like we wanted it to, but we fought."
That's what teams from the Fox Valley do.
As Gomez watched in person, other players in the conference such as Jacobs teammates Bret Mooney and Matt Di Fecchio wrote about the game on their Twitter pages. When the game went final, Di Fecchio sounded surprised, writing that he thought Prairie Ridge was going to come back.
Wolves coach Chris Schremp gathered his players near midfield for a postgame speech. The disappointment from the narrow loss was fresh, and Schremp had other things on his mind than the fact that the Wolves were the Fox Valley's final team in the playoffs.
"That's fun to be the last guy standing," Schremp said. "But you kind of get over that quick."
It might take awhile for the Wolves to get over their season-ending loss.
But eventually, as the days pass, the big picture will come into focus.
The Wolves should be proud. They represented a tough conference well.
"I think we're tough-nosed players, and we give it all we've got, all four quarters," Evans said, reflecting on what it meant to play in the Fox Valley. "That's how we like to play."
Teammate Austin Nirva agreed.
"You have to be really tough and strong to fight through," Nirva said. "We never gave up. We fought through the whole season. Highs and lows, we just fought through."
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.