Week 1 storylines: Starting off strong

Week 1 storylines: Starting off strong

Sports editor Matt Daniels looks at what to watch for around the area ahead of Friday night's action:

GCMS in unique position

For Mike Allen and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, this season is unlike any other in program history.

But the Falcons don't want the final outcome to change.

GCMS will try to defend a state championship for the first time in program history, with the Class 2A champions in 2017 kicking off the season at 7 p.m. on Friday at Ford County rival Paxton-Buckley-Loda.

"They're hungry again," said Allen, back for his 18th season in charge of GCMS. "We've got a big bulls-eye on our back. There's a lot of pressure there, but it's pressure we put on ourselves. We know teams are going to play their best against us to knock us off, but hopefully that will make us better."

GCMS has won 15 straight regular season games, last losing one on Sept. 9, 2016. PBL, however, could pose a stiff challenge with running back T.J. Jones returning after he rushed for 537 yards and six touchdowns, helping the Panthers reach the 3A playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

Familiar names are back for GCMS in senior quarterback Nathan Garard (1,044 passing yards, 16 TDs), senior running back Jared Trantina (962 rushing yards, 15 TDs), senior receivers Ryland Holt (431 receiving yards, 10 TDs) and Bryce Barnes (344 receiving yards, 4 TDs) and a stingy defense that only allowed 113 points last season in 14 games.

"It's really a quick review with all these guys," Allen said, "and then it's time to start building."

Staple of success in HOIC

GCMS could have a different playoff run, too, than it experienced last season if current class projections hold true. The Falcons are slated to be in 1A, earning the wgwg ranking in the first Associated Press poll of the season released on Wednesday afternoon.

Regardless, the Falcons will not only try to repeat as state champs, but keep up the recent tradition of state championship teams hailing from the Heart of Illinois Conference. GCMS (2017), Deer Creek-Mackinaw (2016) and Tri-Valley (2015) are all league members who have won the last three 2A state titles.

Allen and Tri-Valley coach Josh Roop, along with LeRoy coach BJ Zeleznik and Ridgeview/Lexington coach Jake Kennedy, golfed often this summer. The topic of keeping the HOIC, which enters its third season split into Large and Small divisions, on top was a prevalent one on the course.

"I've talked to Josh about it a lot," Allen said. "It's nice to have friends like that who you can trust and go to for advice on items like that."

Zeleznik recognizes the problem of trying to beat the past three 2A state champions — they're all on LeRoy's schedule this season — but is glad to see the statewide recognition these programs have earned.

"I don't know if we got a whole lot of respect across the state early on when the conference formed in 2006, and deservedly so because we weren't getting teams beyond the quarterfinals," Zeleznik said. "The coaches and the programs made a commitment to change that, so everybody is trying to outdo one another. It's been a process of getting to this point, but it's pretty neat to see."

Fisher coach Jake Palmer and his Bunnies will also have to contend with the trifecta of Tri-Valley, GCMS and Deer Creek-Mackinaw this season. An upset win at Deer Creek-Mackinaw in 2017 springboarded the Bunnies — who open the season at 7 p.m. on Friday against Hoopeston Area/Schlarman Academy/Armstrong-Potomac in a game at Schlarman — to their first playoff appearance since 2013. Fisher has its eyes set on another solid season, but will do so without former Villa Grove coach Chad Musselman calling the offense like he did last season. Musselman, who coached Palmer when Palmer starred as the Blue Devils' quarterback last decade, took a teaching job in Danville, leaving the offense in Palmer's hands this season.

"What was great about having Chad is he helped us get it off the ground," Palmer said. "That's what we felt like we wanted to do was lay down that triple option foundation that I had when I played for him in high school and having those high expectations for our kids now. That's where he was just an asset to us last year. We hope we can keep the energy going and the ship going in the same direction."

Spartans bank on seniority

The numbers are back up for St. Joseph-Ogden. In a good way.

A year after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990, the Spartans carry 21 seniors on their roster heading into Friday's 7 p.m. season opener at St. Thomas More, a stark increase after only having 11 seniors last season.

"That's the way it should be," SJ-O coach Shawn Skinner said. "Everything is pointing up."

Skinner and the rest of the Spartans hope the renewed energy around the program results in a new playoff streak. Unity holds the area's longest active playoff streak now, with the Rockets having reached the playoffs in 24 consecutive seasons.

"The biggest thing that we had to understand from last year — and we've kind of stopped talking about it and we've kind of turned the page — is that nothing is given to you in life," Skinner said. "Nothing is guaranteed. It was an important life lesson that you can't just assume anything. We've responded the way we needed to thus far."

Now comes the challenge of finding the consistency this season that was lacking last season for SJ-O. Even with the longer than normal offseason, Skinner said he and his coaches put it to good use."We spent a lot of time in working with and talking to some other programs that have had success in the past five years," Skinner said. "We wanted to see if there were some things that we were missing. We've changed our practice schedule. We've changed our offseason routine. Right now, it looks good. We've got to keep working, though."