Prioritizing strength aims to restore Spartans' pattern of success

Prioritizing strength aims to restore Spartans' pattern of success

ST. JOSEPH — In modern IHSA football, obtaining five victories in a year means a program experienced no postseason success.

St. Joseph-Ogden isn't terribly familiar with that feeling.

Dating back to 1988, the Spartans have finished with five or fewer triumphs just five times.

Unfortunately for SJ-O's rising seniors, three of those instances have occurred in the previous three campaigns.

"It's no secret that the last (few) years haven't been the most successful in the program's history," rising senior Brayden Weaver said. "(There are) a lot of doubts around the conference and around the state about what we can do as a program, so we're just trying to prove everyone wrong."

The Spartans may have the horses to do just that.

Though fourth-year coach Shawn Skinner's crew loses the likes of News-Gazette All-Area first-team lineman Cole Zaccarelli and stout running back Dwight Colvin to graduation, SJ-O is bulking back up in more ways than one.

"We've got over 20 freshmen out," Skinner said. "We haven't had a workout where we've had less than 50 kids at it yet. ... As a coaching staff, we've been so pleased."

And there's a commitment among the Spartans to becoming more physical.

"The past couple years, we've really lacked strength," rising senior Jaden Miller said. "Last year, we really started to realize it a couple weeks into the season, after like Week 4, Week 5. We won the first couple games last year ... and then teams would just run us right over, and we had nothing to stop it."

That observation checks out with a glance at basic statistics.

After a 4-0 start that saw SJ-O outscore its foes 131-50, the Spartans dropped five of their final six outings while permitting 202 points, including a pair of 50-point allowances to eventual Class 3A state champion Monticello.

Rising sophomore Keaton Nolan described how footballers not participating in other sports last school year would participate in "max week," in which the kids would be "pushing each other to get the most weight and just achieve (our) goals."

"It just gets freshmen in and involved with the program," Nolan said. "You're not playing for your individual self — you're playing for the person next to you."

If SJ-O gets things clicking more frequently in 2019, the run game will be a significant reason.

Guys like Weaver, Miller, Nolan and Jarrett Stevenson project to be part of the rushing rotation, though Skinner acknolwedged incumbent quarterback Crayton Burnett will get his fair share of plays to shine.

"We've been at or right over 2,000 yards rushing the three years I've been here, and I love that," Skinner said. "We have to do a better job of being purposefully non-rhythmic, meaning we can't just run the ball every play. ... That said, we've got some cats who can run the football."

Skinner also is getting the services of athletes who didn't previously play football for the Spartans, such as Chance Izard, Payton Cain, Drew Coursey and Jordan Kelly. All competed in at least one other venture at SJ-O the previous school year.

So the Spartans plan to look different than in previous years, which they hope also means a return to the old norm of regular playoff success.

"We've gone 4-5, 5-4, 5-5 the past three years that I've played, and it's tough," Miller said. "It's hard to watch. It's not a good feeling to be a part of. Just want to be successful."

And if SJ-O needs a reminder just how good clubs can be out of the Illini Prairie Conference, the Spartans needn't look any further than the opponent that ended their previous season.

"That's a big chip on our shoulder, and seeing (the Sages) go all the way and win it," Weaver said, "that kind of hurt. But also, it showed us that they're in our conference and we're not that far off. We're just a couple pieces away."

Monday morning quarterback

Crayton Burnett took playcalling reigns for the Spartans' last four games of 2018, and that trend will continue in Burnett's junior campaign. "Going into the season, he's our No. 1 quarterback," SJ-O coach Shawn Skinner said. "That's pretty established." Should Burnett need some backup, rising senior Sam Wesley is likely to get the call on account of his playing the position at younger levels of the game.

Coach speak

Skinner enters his Year 4 in charge of his alma mater. The former SJ-O and Westville assistant carries a 14-15 record with the Spartans through his first three seasons after replacing Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame member Dick Duval prior to the 2016 season. "The word that we've used a couple times this summer is traction," Skinner said. "We've got our traction in the direction we wanted to."

We're talking playoffs

Their first playoff win happened ... in 1987 when SJ-O defeated Unity 25-16 in a Class 3A first-round game.

Their most recent playoff win was ... in 2015 when the Spartans defeated Bloomington Central Catholic 26-21 in a Class 3A state quarterfinal game.

Their best-ever finish was ... as state runner-ups in 1989 (2A), 1997 (2A), 1999 (3A), 2006 (3A) and 2013 (3A).

When you can see SJ-O

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Aug. 30 vs. St. Thomas More 7 p.m.

Sept. 6 at Rantoul 7 p.m.

Sept. 13 vs. Bloomington CC 7 p.m.

Sept. 20 at Unity 7 p.m.

Sept. 27 vs. Pontiac 7 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Prairie Central 7 p.m.

Oct. 11 vs. Chillicothe IVC 7 p.m.

Oct. 18 vs. Olympia 7 p.m.

Oct. 25 at Monticello 7 p.m.

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