East Peoria produced a level of success on the football field not seen since the introduction of the state playoffs by the Illinois High School Association in 1974.
The Raiders had easily the best turnaround of any team in the Mid-Illini Conference with a 7-3 record, a five-win improvement from 2011.
"I think the No. 1 factor is the character of our kids," EPCHS head coach Doug Martin said of what made the leap possible. "When you have a program without a history of success, it is difficult to get kids to stick it out for four years.
We had 16 seniors this year, our most since our last playoff team in 2009.
"It just goes to show you that if the kids in our community are willing to give football a try and will work hard for four years, they will be successful and help us build a new tradition."
East Peoria also stayed relatively healthy.
"Like every other program, we had bumps and bruises, and we still lost some kids to injury, but overall we managed to stay healthy throughout the year," said Martin.
The Raiders tied Washington and Pekin for second place in the league with a 5-2 mark.
The fifth win of the season, 35-14 Oct. 5 at Dunlap, was critical in East Peoria's playoff push.
"Dunlap has always been a rock we stumble over and to get that win gave us five for the season and a lot of confidence going into the final two regular-season games," Martin said.
The Raiders did not meet their objective of winning a playoffs game with a 36-22 first-round loss Oct. 27 in Class 5A at Urbana.
"The goal was to advance in the tournament and we did not do that. It was a bitter disappointment that is only magnified by the feeling that we were good enough to still be playing," said Martin.
How the players handle this season's success will be important for the fortunes of future seasons.
"We need to take the next step and win some games in late October and November," Martin said. "As hard as we worked this offseason, we have got to find another level of effort and performance."
East Peoria is losing some senior stalwarts, and it is not just the headline players who made a difference.
"We are losing some seniors who have played a lot of football for us the past three years. The great programs always manage to replace seniors lost to graduation and our young kids are going to have to work their tails off to be mentally and physically prepared for next season," said Martin.
A trio of three-year starters will depart from the offensive line. There also are some three-year starters on defense who will leave voids.
Page 2 of 2 - Junior running back Michael Thompson, the Corwin Clatt Award winner as the team Most Valuable Player, ran for 1,855 yards and 27 touchdowns.
He averaged 7.4 yards per carry to win the conference's rushing title.
Lucas Joseph, a senior, was the Raiders' overwhelming leader with 87 tackles, including 13 for loss. The linebacker added three recovered fumbles, two forced fumbles, an interception and a defensive TD.
He was tabbed the Troy Tucker Defensive Player of the Year.
On offense, Joseph rushed for 476 yards on 69 attempts with three TDs. He also had a team-best 12 receptions.
"I think their seasons go hand in hand," Martin said of Thompson and Joseph. "They were a tremendous complement to each other."
Senior quarterback Nick Haeffele did not throw an interception. He passed for 501 yards and five TDs. He was selected as the Patrick Craig Award winner for his service and leadership.
Ryan Potendyk, a senior, gave the Raiders a third solid option in the backfield with 350 yards and six TDs. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
Potendyk was the Stew McGinnis Award winner as the Most Improved Player.
Of his 38 tackles at defensive end, seven were behind the line of scrimmage. He forced three fumbles, recovered two loose balls, made an interception and added a defensive score.
Senior Robby Betz garnered the Tim Simpson Award as the Lineman of the Year.
Tony Hall, a junior, had 41 tackles, four of which were for loss, with a sack and a forced fumble.
Junior Sean Mulhern made 39 tackles, recovered two fumbles and forced another one. He also made five catches for 107 yards.
Nate Nieukirk, a senior, had 33 tackles with two sacks and two recovered fumbles. He notched five receptions for 68 yards.
Senior Adam Sommer registered a team-high 5.5 sacks. Of his 29 tackles, five were for loss. He also recovered a pair of fumbles and forced one.
Martin credited offensive coordinator Josh Johnson with running a disciplined run game.
The head coach recognized Sean Saylor's defensive unit for coming up big in weeks seven and eight against Dunlap and Pekin, respectively.
Martin said the coordinators worked with the players and developed successful game plans weekly.
Streator and Chicago Collins will remain in the first two weeks of the non-conference season. East Peoria will face the Bulldogs on the road and Collins again will come to Corwin Clatt Field.
The Raiders had seven players named to one of the two all-M-I teams.
The entire list of East Peoria all-conference selections will appear in a future edition of the East Peoria Times-Courier and on www.eastpeoriatimescourier.com/sports.