John McCue smiled wistfully Thursday as he glanced from the south end zone at players on East Aurora’s varsity practicing on Roy E. Davis Field for a pivotal Friday home game against Fenton.
Pivotal Friday home game?
It has been a long time since anyone said that about the Tomcats in football this late in the year.
But with two games remaining in the regular season, there was legitimate reason to talk playoffs and East Aurora (3-4) in the same sentence. McCue knows it all too well.
The Tomcats haven’t been to the postseason in 36 years — and only three times overall.
McCue, 54, is in his sixth year teaching at East Aurora after a late-life career change. He played on the Tomcats’ last two playoff teams and is a link to past glory. McCue also has come full circle, helping to coach the current freshmen.
“I’ve been so blessed to come back home and teach,” said McCue, who went back to get his master’s degree in education after the recession impacted his construction work. “It’s awesome.”
As a senior, McCue was the quarterback for the last East Aurora team to make the playoffs in the fall of 1982.
Leading coach Pete Ventrelli’s wishbone offense, McCue and teammate Kevin Wilson each ran for more than 1,000 yards. Those Tomcats finished 7-3, losing 17-14 to Rock Island in the playoffs.
McCue was called up as a sophomore running back by coach John Wrenn to the 1980 team that made the playoffs with McCue’s brother Billy, who went on to play at Iowa State, at quarterback.
“We never would have believed it,” McCue said of the long playoff drought that would follow after he left to play at Western Illinois. “But then again, my senior year was the year we had all the budget cuts.”
That led to elimination of district middle school sports and the high school program having to be funded by the booster club.
Ventrelli, in his second year coaching the team, lost his job in the cuts. He later coached 15 years at Downers Grove North, making the playoffs nine times.
“We had a student walkout one day in the spring to protest those cuts,” McCue said. “I remember leaving study hall and marching down to the student service center to protest.
“It didn’t do any good, but it was pretty cool. Warner Saunders from one of the Chicago television stations was out here in the gym, interviewing people.”
McCue thinks those cuts were just the first of a series of factors contributing to the program’s woes in a number of areas.
“We’ve been on hard times,” McCue said.
It could be changing under second-year coach Nick Kukuc.
“If they win Friday," McCue said, “you’re looking at the first round of the playoffs – basically – against Elgin in the final game since you should have two 4-4 teams. Winner gets in, loser goes home.
“I get goosebumps. To get that opportunity is why you play high school sports.”
McCue pointed to East Aurora’s seniors, the second class he coached.
“They went 7-2 as freshmen, 7-2 as sophomores," he said. “They’re 3-1 in their last four games and they believe. You don’t always need 70 kids to compete. If you have 35-40 with some athletes, which they do, you’ve got a chance.”
McCue and his former teammates welcome it.
“A group of us get together for breakfast once a month," McCue said. “We joke that they’re going to start putting in our obituaries we were members of the last playoff team.”