EUREKA — Temperatures dropped and snow blanketed the field this week, but the Eureka football team has been grinding and preparing for the next matchup, just like any other.
And this week, the Red Devils have a tall task in front of them.
Perennial Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference contender Lakeland is coming to town for a 1 p.m. battle inside Pete FioRito Stadium.
"It's the same thing I told our guys last year going up to play them," EC coach Kurt Barth said.
"You'll get a champion's fight, meaning they're not going down without giving their best effort. We've got to be that same way.
Effort hasn't been lacking on the field, at practice and on the Red Devils' sideline the past couple weeks as Eureka has fallen short in back-to-back games by a combined scored of four points. In Barth's estimation, a couple big plays here and a lucky break there could have put EC in a different position heading into this one.
"Sometimes in games, there's opportunities to make plays and there's opportunities to miss plays, and we've missed a few more than we've made," he said. "That's certainly the difference between being a 5-2 team and a 3-4 team."
Now, the maroon and gold is looking to stay the course, cherish every rep and continue to grow.
Before Eureka joined the NACC and seized the conference crown last year, Lakeland had won at least a share of the last four league titles.
The Muskies were sole champs in 2017, shared the title with Aurora in 2016, won it outright in 2015 and shared with both Benedictine and Wisconsin Lutheran in 2014. They also won it back in 2009.
This is a team that has won its share of games and has a tradition of being competitive.
The Muskies hold a 33-12-1 advantage in the all-time series against the Red Devils, and have won 13 in a row against EC.
The last time EC came out on top was a 47-45 victory that clinched an Illini-Badger Conference championship for star receiver Kurt Barth and the Red Devils on Nov. 4, 1995. That memorable shootout came down to a 42-yard Lakeland field goal that sailed wide with 43 seconds left. The newspaper clipping proudly hangs on the bulletin board in Barth's office.
"They've always been a great team, going back to the rivalries that we had prior to the NACC," Barth said. "It should be a fun atmosphere."
This Lakeland team comes to Eureka with 3-1 record in the NACC and a 4-3 record overall. Like Eureka, the Muskies lost to Concordia Chicago, dropping a 31-26 game to open league play.
Since then, they've ripped off three straight wins, shutting out Concordia Wisconsin 44-0, blowing Rockford 76-21 and taking care of Wisconsin Lutheran 39-6 last week.
Last week, Lakeland conceded touchdown off a fumble recovery in the first quarter, then kept Wisconsin Lutheran off the board the rest of the way.
Running back Larry Rivers became Lakeland's first 1,000-yard rusher in 24 years. He finished the game with 211 yards in the game and 1,117 on the season. He's currently leading all NACC rushers with 159.6 yards per game.
His teammate, Dezmon Eddie, is fifth at 91.1. Quarterback Charl'Tez Nunnery, Eddie and Rivers are all in the top five in the conference in rushing touchdowns with nine, eight and seven, respectively.
The Muskies are comfortably ahead of the pack in rushing yards, boasting a league-leading 293.6 per game, along with league highs in yards per carry (5.7), touchdowns (25) and attempts (360).
"Lakeland is very athletic," Barth said. "They've got a big offensive line. They've got three backs that are very fast.
"We'll have to make sure we get in position to tackle well. We've got to make sure we don't get in a position where we have to chase."
Eddie is the most versatile member of the Muskies' backfield. He splits time between rushing and lining up at receiver, notching 645 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 69 rushes and 27 receptions for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
Nunnery, the quarterback, is a capable dual threat, throwing for 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns on 79-for-128 passing, and running for 163 yards and nine touchdowns on 67 attempts.
Defensively, the Muskies are currently allowing the fewest yards per game in the league at 307 while racking up eight interceptions, nine fumble recoveries and three touchdowns.
Sam Bartlett has a team-high 5.5 sacks and McNemon Vincent is right behind him with 5.
A THRILLER IN REVIEW
When the Red Devils and the Muskies faced off last year, it was a thriller to the end.
Le'Anthony Reasnover produced his third career 300-yard game to break his own single-season Eureka rushing record and scored five touchdown to match his own single-game Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference record, but a two-point conversion attempt to win the game in the final minute came up short as Red Devils fell 56-55.
The Red Devils led by 21 points early, thanks to a couple of quick scores by Reasnover and a fumble return for a touchdown by Jon Jackson. The Muskies, however, got on the board at the end of the first quarter and tallied 20 points in the second to make it 35-26 at the break.
The two team traded blows throughout the third quarter. Then, with 14:55 left in the game, Lakeland came within one at 49-48. The Muskies proceeded to deliver a fourth-down stop to end a long drive, and took a 56-49 lead with 56 seconds left.
The Red Devils had one final push. James Douglas III returned the ensuing kickoff to the Lakeland 44. Three plays later on 4th-and-5 from the LU 39, Drew Barth found Caleb Fauver with a touchdown throw to the corner of the end zone to pull EC within 56-55 with 18 seconds to play. Eureka ultimately went for the win with a 2-point conversion attempt, but Reasnover was bottled up short of the goal line.
Eureka bounced back the following week and clinched a NACC title and bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs with a with 38-7 victory over Rockford.