Winning programs are not built overnight. None of the current core of the undefeated Lively Hawks football team were around when the squad endured back-to-back winless seasons in 2007 and 2008.
By the time this group arrived, light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. Still, it's a long way from suggesting a team is ready to turn the corner to believing that they are about to contend for a city title.
The Hawks entered the fall of 2013 with legitimate championship hopes, winning four of their first five games, with only a 28-28 tie against the defending champion Lo-Ellen Park Knights standing in the way of a share of top spot with the St. Charles College Cardinals.
Talk to the players and it becomes apparent the genesis of this football metamorphosis can be traced to multiple factors, one of which is coach Reg Bonin.
"I was coached by Reg Bonin before in Joe Mac, so I knew he was a great coach," said fourth-year linebacker Adam Ferris.
"And the Lively kids are just tough kids," Ferris added with a smile.
By the fall of 2011, it was becoming clear the painful 2007 and 2008 seasons were behind them.
"We played Lasalle in a pre-season game and everything was different," Ferris said. "Everyone knew what they were doing, we knew we could do well and we knew where we needed to improve."
Bonin was not about to throw quarterback Hunter Holub into the fire too quickly, allowing the gifted athlete to watch and learn under the tutelage of Milo Gaudin during his freshman season at Lively.
"I think that was the best thing for me," said Holub. "I got a feeling for the higher level of football, playing against guys that are 18 when you're only 14 or 15."
The snowball was soon in motion. Confidence was building with every step forward.
"We started winning games, beating teams we had never beaten before, making plays that we had never made before," said Ferris.
It's been said, many times over, that championship teams need to lose before they can learn to win.
Ironically, it was a close loss against Lockerby that provided Holub with a defining Lively moment. Scoring a late touchdown to pull to within a point of the Vikings in 2011, the Hawks opted to go for the two-point conversion.
"We didn't make it, we lost the game, but that was my best memory," said Holub. "All the kids wanted to go for the win."
That moment perhaps best defines the competitive spirit that burns within so many of the Lively athletes.
"We stop the run better than people expect," said Ferris. "For me, as a 5-8 linebacker, I kind of like shocking people, being the underdog. Our D line is small, but we get penetration. We just don't give up."
When it comes to offence, the Hawks are blessed with more quick-strike weapons than any other team in the league. The Lively attack has also benefited from the growth of Holub into a premier quarterback.
"The knowledge that I have of the game is so much better now," he said. "Before, I wasn't making the reads and the throws that I was supposed to. But with Coach Bonin, and Coach Richer with the Gladiators, they've taught me what to look for."
Make no mistake, the Hawks have eyes on the 5-0 Cardinals. First things first, however.
"We know that St. Charles is coming, but right now, we'll focus on St. Ben's," said Ferris.
St. Charles and Lively are headed towards a first-place showdown on Oct. 25. That kind of statement appeared absolutely unattainable just a few short years ago for fans of the Hawks. These days, it is a reality, though not an easy goal to reach.
"If we can eliminate our mental mistakes, we should have a good shot," Holub said.
"We have to eliminate penalties," added Ferris. "It's the late hits, the holding penalties, the mental lapses — if we eliminate those, we're tough to beat."
And even with the impending graduation of an impressive core of talent, the foundation in Lively has been set.
"I look at the junior team that we have now, they're just stellar athletes," said Ferris. "We'll always have kids that are dedicated and will still go out and put up the best fight we can."
That hunger to compete is one big key to assembling a winning program.