State championships are nothing new for Rochester High School’s football program, which has produced players who have played at all four Illinois FCS schools. (Photo by Rochester CUSD)
By Dan Verdun
Over the past dozen years the Rochester Rockets have left a lasting impact on Illinois high school football. That impact has also been felt within the four state FCS programs.
Fifteen former Rochester players have played at the four Illinois FCS schools since 2006 (see list at story’s end) — from a program that started at the junior varsity level in 1995.
Yet, it’s been under head coach Derek Leonard — who took over the program in 2005 — that the Rochester Rockets have zoomed into the upper stratus of Illinois prep football, winning eight state championships since 2010.
“Before he got there, it was still considered a relatively new program. It wasn’t like there was a ton of history of success. There was no road map when he took over,” state recruiting analyst “Edgy” Tim O’Halloran said.
Rochester, located in Sangamon County, is approximately eight miles southeast of Springfield in central Illinois. According to recent census records, Rochester’s population is 3,778. Its high school enrollment is 767.
Leonard has posted a 174-34 career record. Moreover, those eight state titles came within a 10-year time frame, including five championships in a row.
The secret to success
“Obviously Derek Leonard has a lot to do with it,” O’Halloran said. “The moment he got in there he had a plan. He is incredibly organized, meticulous in everything that he does with that program. He has a good staff around him.”
Steve Buecker, Leonard’s defensive coordinator, is an Eastern Illinois graduate.
O’Halloran added, “I always look at it as a public school program that has been able to keep kids home. It’s no difference for Rochester versus what’s up here in the Chicagoland area (public school) programs trying to keep kids away from the Catholic schools.”
Leonard said, “I take a lot of pride of having success as a small public school.”
Zach Grant set several state high school receiving records as a player under Leonard. He was a key element of Rochester’s first state titles in 2010 and ’11. Grant then played collegiately at the University of Illinois.
“It’s remarkable what Derek and his staff have done the last 10-to-12 years. Just making it to the playoffs is special, but when you go to that many state championships and win, it’s unbelievable,” said Grant, now wide receivers coach at Western Illinois University.
“Everything Rochester runs offensively and defensively is very similar (to college programs),” Grant said. “There are things that we were running in high school that we hadn’t even started running in college. I think very highly of Derek.
“Once you have success in your program then you get people who want to be a part of that. After those first state championships, things really took off.”
Grant has witnessed the entire growth of the Rochester powerhouse.
“When I got into high school and got to be around Derek I saw his ability to get everybody to buy in. That was really special. You can’t talk about Rochester football without talking about Derek,” Grant said. “You talk about getting kids ready to go to college, and I could name every single coach on that staff and every one of those guys is an unbelievable coach . . . All of those guys are a huge part of that success.”
Mike Gunter graduated from Rochester in 2011. He next played at Eastern Illinois University where he contributed to back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference championship seasons and consecutive playoff appearances for the Panthers.
“When I was a kid growing up it was a 5-4 (record) and if we made the playoffs that was something,” Gunter said. “My junior year we went undefeated and all of the sudden you started noticing more and more people showing up for the games. They were three, four and five deep around the field.
“Success breeds success. It’s the thing to do on Friday night in the fall. Go watch the Rockets play.”
Nic Baker, now a record-setting quarterback at Southern Illinois University, led Rochester to a 27-1 combined record as a junior and senior and won two state championships.
“It’s the Rochester coaching staff. It’s the environment that they have that football program in. It’s the culture. It’s a cliche, but it’s true,” Baker said. “You go there and you’re just supposed to win. That’s just how it is. Your mind is fixed to win every game and to win the state championship. Your mind is fixed on that and that’s how you approach every day.”
A father-son act
Yet, Leonard is quick to credit his father Ken’s influence on his success.
“We all coach how we were coached and I was also fathered by the same person,” Leonard said. “Everything I do is outlined from him. Whatever success we have at Rochester from a coaching standpoint, it comes from my father.”
Derek Leonard played for his father at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in the mid-1990s and then became a record-setting quarterback at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
Ken Leonard is the all-time winningest coach in IHSA history and won five state championships with four additional title-game appearances.
“You look at the quarterback position and the run Derek has made there,” Grant said. “You go from Wil Lunt to Sean Robinson to Wes Lunt to Austin Green to the guys playing in college now . . . just about every quarterback that Derek has coached has gone to (play in) college, whether it’s Division 1 or D3, it doesn’t matter because they were all good enough to go play college ball.
“Schematically it goes back to Ken Leonard. The stuff that Derek was running 15 years ago, Ken was running 20 years ago. That was way ahead of a lot of colleges and some college coaches.”
The weight of a father-son rivalry
Over the years, Rochester and Sacred Heart-Griffin have played each other — often for high stakes.
“It’s really tough. It was tough early on. It was tough on my mom (Liz) and our family,” Derek said. “We’ve been lucky because it’s always been a good game. As time went on it got a little easier, but the last two years the playoffs have been different. The stakes are higher.
“Two years ago we beat them to make the state championship and last year they beat us to go to the state championship. Those were not easy. Those carried more weight.”
And that weight got heavier after the game.
“Those two games have really worn him (Ken) out. When we lost he saw my two boys, his grandchildren, crying. He’s going to the state championship and he starts crying because those little boys were so devastated,” Derek said.
Ken Leonard announced he will coach his final season this fall, which opens with his team hosting Rochester.
A mother’s balance
Liz Leonard — Ken’s wife and Derek’s mother — graduated from Highland Park High School and then Illinois State University in the 1970s. She married Ken in 1977 and taught in Springfield School District 186 for nearly 30 years.
Liz passed away on Dec. 31, 2017, at age 64.
“She was always the one that kept us together. It didn’t matter who won and who lost. We would always go out for a family dinner afterwards. And after that day, it was over. She was the rock that kept us together,” Derek said. “It’s been tough without her.”
What Rochester means to the state FCS schools (& vice versa)
“Illinois is different from other states because it pulls you in different directions,” Derek Leonard said. “A lot of my kids go to those schools, so I’m often more interested in those schools.
“When it comes to the FCS schools, Illinois has a lot more interest (than in other states). (ISU head coach Brock) Spack has done a great job. I absolutely love Nick Hill (at SIU). Eastern and Western have fallen on tough times lately, but they’ve had past success.”
Grant joined the WIU staff under head coach Jared Elliott in 2020. He remains on the Leatherneck staff under first-year head coach and WIU alum Myers Hendrickson. There are three former Rochester players on the current Western roster.
“You look at other states and some may have one FCS school, and here we have four FCS Division I schools, three in the same conference. It’s special and makes Illinois special. There are a lot of really good high school football players in the state of Illinois, so to have four Division I FCS programs here for those kids is something special. Each school is recruiting Illinois pretty heavily.”
Gunter is a 2015 EIU graduate who coached for three collegiate seasons at various schools prior to taking a management position with Caterpillar. Gunter relishes the fact Rochester players have found their way onto FCS rosters over the years.
“Each one of those state programs is getting a kid that shows up and knows how to win. They know how to work hard. They know what it takes. You get a kid from a Rochester or from a Sacred Heart, he understands coaching. Those kids know what it takes to win,” Gunter said. “There’s a lot of coaches out there that would take those kids and would benefit from it. Both coach Leonards eat, sleep and breathe football and you just don’t see that as much these days. They get them ready to play at the next level. They understand that. They’re very special people.”
Rochester players at Illinois FCS schools
Danny Vehovic, WR/TE – 2006-10
Mike Gunter, SAF – 2011-15
Austin Green, QB – 2013-16
Jeremy Bivens, WR – 2015
Matt Swaine, DE – 2015-18
Nic Baker, QB – 2018-present
Avante Cox, WR – 2019-present
D’Ante’ Cox, WR – 2020-present
Chris Koerwitz, OL – 2021
Wil Lunt, QB – 2009-12
Taylor Hill, TE – 2012-15
Adam Conrady, TE – 2015-18
Clay Bruno, QB – 2020-present
Cade Eddington, WR – 2021-present
Jacob Durocher, RB – 2021-present
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