Playoff football storylines
In Class 3A, four 7-2 teams will open up with home games. Monticello is among the 7-2 teams hitting the road for their playoff opener. The Sages travel to Nokomis (8-1) on Saturday. “We expected that, with our low number of playoff points,” coach Cully Welter said. The Monticello record is a reflection of the quality of players in the program. “We’ve had more injuries this year than in the past, but we have better depth, so we’ve been able to overcome that,” Welter said. Nokomis hasn’t scored fewer than 40 points in any game, including its loss. Sages’ quarterback Parker Trice needs 30 passing yards to reach 1,000 for the season. Rushing leader Ryan Donohue has more than 3,000 yards the past two years.
A year ago, the Panthers were playoff-eligible but were postseason spectators. They were one of the 5-4 teams not selected to participate. This year’s 9-0 team left no doubts, shattering the school’s nine-game team scoring record, which was 388 points and is now 438. “We felt coming in we had a chance be pretty good, but you never know from week to week how a team will mature,” coach B.J. Zeleznik said. “Will they get better and come together as a group? You can be great in the weight room and practice, but those teams don’t always perform on Friday night. The bottom line is when the lights come on, you have to get the job done.” With 11 seniors, the team has excelled. LeRoy plays host to Brown County on Saturday.
Co-op boosts Broncos
Andy Kerley tells people this about his football coaching position. “It’s like I changed jobs, without changing jobs,” he said. A year ago, Cerro Gordo/DeLand-Weldon formed a co-op. Kerley had a four-person coaching staff and 27 players. This year, counting volunteers, he has nine coaches and 42 squad members. Bement joined the co-op this year. “The kids have been really great,” Kerley said. “Since the first week of football camp, we haven’t had any divisions. We haven’t had one single issue with kids from different towns disagreeing based on that background.” The unbeaten Broncos open their Class 2A playoff bid at home Saturday against Lawrenceville (7-2), which had won 12 games the previous six years.
Knights improve quickly
Arthur-Lovington added to its team this year by forming a co-op with Atwood-Hammond. “We’re playing mainly juniors and seniors against mainly juniors and seniors,” coach Dale Schuring said. “The past couple years, we were primarily freshmen and sophomores.” The results are obvious. The last two years, A-L was 1-17. Now 7-2, the Knights are playing a first-round 2A playoff game at Carlinville (8-1). Offensive balance has been one key for A-L. The squad is averaging 145 yards per game passing and 127 rushing. “The Atwood-Hammond kids have made a huge difference,” Schuring said. “They added speed and brought things we were missing. We can match speed on the field with a bunch of people and are better than a lot.”
A first at Urbana
There is certain to be celebrating at Urbana on Saturday when the Class 5A playoff game between the host Tigers and East Peoria ends. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. No prediction — yet — on which team will win, but either way, it will be that school’s first football playoff victory. Urbana is 0-9 in the postseason. East Peoria is 0-3. There are other similarities. East Peoria won three total games the last two years while Urbana won nine games the past five years. The Tigers’ defensive strength shows up front. The team has recorded 87 tackles for loss, including a team-high 18 by Mikshadd Townsend. Cedrick Fry has 14 behind-the-line stops. Quarterback Cameron Mammen has eclipsed 1,000 yards in both rushing and passing.
Unity healthy and strong
Unity’s state-ranked Rockets managed an 8-1 regular-season record in spite of injuries which sidelined two key players, Mitch Negangard and Micah Johnson. Negangard has been back for two games and Johnson (ankle) is expected back for Saturday’s 3A home playoff game against Pana (5-4). Despite being sidelined, Johnson has more than half of the team’s receiving yards (409 of 741). “He gives us that explosive speed we like to have with our inside run game,” Unity coach Scott Hamilton said. “He is a huge key to our success. He played since he was a sophomore and was a piece we’ve been missing.” Pana has been short-handed since rushing leader Nic Dilley suffered a season-ending elbow injury in week 6. The Panthers’ top active rusher is Dexter Holley with 426 yards. Unity is coming off a game where quarterback Justin Deters ran for 144 yards and alternating fullbacks (by series) Negangard and Conner Grace had 159 and 121 yards, respectively. “As you get into the playoffs, it’s important to have some balance and different guys who can hurt you,” Hamilton said. “We knew Conner was going to be a quality back. When Mitch was hurt, given that opportunity, Conner stepped up.” Hamilton said his team can’t be satisfied with how they’ve played to date. “If we can get better and improve as we have the last few weeks, we will have shot to compete,” he said. “The thing you can’t lose track of is if you stop getting better, the season ends pretty quickly.” The regular-season ending 50-12 win at Shelbyville was the team’s sixth in a row.
Milford’s unique position
Few teams in the state — perhaps no other team — will be as ready to play football on Saturday as Milford/Cissna Park. When the Bearcats (6-3) take the field for a 2 p.m. game at Moweaqua Central A&M (8-1), it will be the second game for coach Nate Albaugh’s team in four weeks. A shortage of teams in the Vermilion Valley Conference forced MCP to accept forfeits in Weeks 7 and 9. “It has been a unique month,” Albaugh said. “It wasn’t our first choice, and it had a large portion of negative to it. However, the positive is that we are very, very healthy and we’ve been able to focus on areas we had some problems with.” He made some changes to the playbook. “We had time to nail down what works for us, focus on things that are good and take the parts of the offense and defense that were giving problems and drop them,” he said. “We feel we are firing on all cylinders. Our offensive execution is high.” That means the sophomore backfield (quarterback Jacob Marquez, and running backs Devon Laubscher and Jake Rogers) will need to continue what they’ve established with consistently solid performances, while veteran wingbacks/receivers Beau Anderson and Alex Rabe flash their big-play potential. The youthful backfield trio is averaging more than 7.0 yards per carry. “If they do that, we feel we can score some points,” Albaugh said, “and we will have to play fantastic defense to hold them down to a score that is manageable. We are very aware of how good they are. We are excited to go on the road and play in a great atmosphere.”
Villa Grove knows the feeling
The Blue Devils’ opponent for a Saturday Class 1A home game (2 p.m.), Winchester West Central, features a ground-oriented attack similar in philosophy to what Villa Grove coach Chad Musselman employes. “They play our game, try to run straight at you and play keepaway,” Musselman said. “Sometimes teams like that lull you to sleep, and if you don’t do your job, crack off a sweep to the outside for a big play.” Winchester quarterback Corey Barnett has attempted 35 passes in nine games, completing 16. A multi-sport standout, Barnett started for the school’s Class 1A state runner-up basketball team in 2010, and had a double-double in the semifinals. The senior is also the Cougars’ top tackler with five more stops than his brother Drew, who joins him in the offensive backfield as a running back. Depending on the week, Musselman said different areas of his defense have been strong. In some games, he said, “the defensive line sets the tone.” Up front are Cole Beesley, Jerrod Derby and two-way starter Bjorn Oberg, who also handles the placekicking duties. In other games, it’s hybrid players, brothers Gabe and Noah Palmer — who can be anywhere from ends to strong safeties — “who flush everything in to our linebackers,” Musselman said. Shane Frick, Wyatt Beesley and Terrion Price are the linebackers. Musselman doesn’t have confirmation yet on the status of injured Ryan Pearce (knee), who was hurt in the second half of the Week 7 win against Arthur-Lovington. “A game-time decision,” Musselman said about his rushing leader.
LeRoy rushing forward
Senior Shane Bruning, thanks to a 241-yard rushing effort in the regular-season finale at Illinois Wesleyan against Tri-Valley, has taken over the area lead in rushing. He has 1,652 yards. “He is having quite the year,” Panthers’ coach B.J. Zeleznik said. Bruning broke the school’s single-game rushing record (with 327 yards) and followed up with a school-record regular-season total. He surpassed the 1,478 record that Evan Coombs set in 2001. He is closing in on more records. With another 139 rushing yards, he will shatter the career mark (3,681) which has stood since Jake Roop graduated in 1996. While Bruning has excelled, Zeleznik said quarterback Nic Stevens “is having a phenomenal year.” The Panthers don’t throw often (Stevens is 15 for 29), but Zeleznik said, “in terms of managing the huddle and running the offense, I am very pleased how he has played.” Also satisfying is a defensive unit which kept previously unbeaten Tri-Valley scoreless in the Week 9 showdown. The anchors are end Cory Eastham, nose tackle Matt Hamilton and linebacker D.J. Morgan. “Some people had concerns with the number of points given up, but they weren’t always given up in varsity minutes,” Zeleznik said. “Our first-team defense played its best of the year in the conference title game.” LeRoy’s 1A playoff drive opens at home Saturday vs. Mount Sterling Brown County. A win will match it against a Heart of Illinois Conference team, the winner of Friday’s Flanagan/Ridgeview game. LeRoy beat them on consecutive October Fridays.