Sports Editor MATT DANIELS checks in with three area teams before the Friday night lights turn on:
1 TOLONO — Don’t discount Unity’s defense.Senior quarterback Nate Reinhart impressed with four touchdown passes in the Rockets’ 41-0 home win against Pontiac last Friday night, but coach Scott Hamilton’s defense stood out, too.
Unity (1-1) didn’t allow Pontiac to earn a first down the entire night at Hicks Field in helping the Rockets post their eighth regular-season shutout this decade.
Senior linebacker Cooper Reed has become a key playmaker for the Rockets, but Hamilton is quick to point out how seniors Cade Scott, TJ Ingrum and Logan Wilson, along with junior Pate Eastin and sophomore Austin McDaniel, have improved their play on Unity’s defensive line.
“Cooper really stands out,” Hamilton said, “but those guys up front really deserve a lot of the credit for keeping Cooper clean.”
The fact Unity overcame a tough 21-20 Week 1 home loss to Chillicothe IVC — a season after the Rockets started out 0-4 en route to missing the playoffs — to earn their first win of the season isn’t lost on Hamilton.
Especially with a tough foe in Prairie Central (2-0) awaiting at 7 p.m. this Friday in Unity’s first road game of its nine-game Illini Prairie Conference slate.
“They run an offense we only see once a year, and they do it really, really well,” Hamilton said of Prairie Central’s run-oriented approach. “Our defense has been flying around to the football and trying to get 11 guys to the ball. When you’re playing against that type of team, you can’t necessarily play like that. You’ve got to be a little more disciplined. We’ve worked for 4-5 weeks, plus the summer, on getting 11 guys to the football. Now, you’ve got to take a step back a little bit. That’s a little different for us, but we’ll be OK.”
2 MONTICELLO — In leading Monticello football to a Class 3A state title, Cully Welter didn’t lose a game in 2018, with his Sages compiling a perfect 14-0 record.That changed fast in 2019.
The Sages suffered a 40-14 loss at Chillicothe IVC last Friday night, Monticello’s first regular-season loss since Unity beat the Sages 30-13 on Sept. 29, 2017.
Monticello (1-1) will try to avoid the program’s first two-game losing streak since 2014 when it hosts St. Thomas More (0-2) at 7 p.m. Friday in the Sages first home game this season.
“We will have a good crowd because we always get good community support,” Welter said, “and it will be the first opportunity for a lot of people to catch a game since we had long road trips during the first two weeks.”
Shoring up its defense is key this week for Monticello. When asked what the Sages need to fix on that side of the ball, Welter stressed tackling.
And tackling. And tackling again.
“We are a team that will struggle with execution early in a season as we try to get comfortable with our own schemes, but our basic fundamentals of tackling, taking on blocks, basic footwork on both sides of the ball and running crisp routes leaves a lot to be desired right now,” Welter said. “As coaches, we know we need to do a better job getting our kids to focus on the details.”
Quarterback Nic Tackels (13 of 27 for 257 yards, three TDs) is in his first full season guiding the Sages’ offense after the senior backed up Braden Snyder, The News-Gazette’s Player of the Year in 2018, last fall.
“Any first-year starting quarterback is going to have some growing pains, especially when he does not have an experienced core around him to alleviate some of the burden,” Welter said. “I really like Nic’s skill set, but he needs to relax, enjoy the opportunity and slow down a little bit. I am confident in his abilities.”
Same goes for junior Chris Brown (222 rushing yards, three TDs), Monticello’s lead tailback. Brown is averaging a whopping 13.9 yards per carry this season.
“He has been ready for this role for a couple of years,” Welter said. “He has gotten much better at knowing the playbook, but that is still an area he can improve. That being said, Chris is a good kid and really fun to watch with the ball in his hands.”
Tackels, Brown and the rest of their teammates will try to have some fun against the Sabers, who have never beaten the Sages in the six games the two teams have played against one another since the 2013 season.
“I know people hate coachspeak, but focusing on the outcome Friday night or the impact it has on the rest of the season takes our attention away from the importance of getting better,” Welter said. “STM has some really nice players, and they present some difficult challenges. We need to have a great week of practice.”
3 FARMER CITY — Brady Masengale has thrown seven touchdown passes in his first two games. Zach Stephens is leading the area in receiving yards with 339. And Wayne Bowns and Dominic Gentry are churning out hard-earned rushing yards.All four are Blue Ridge seniors who have helped the Knights — a program that has a combined 28-116 record this century — win their first two games for the first time since 2003.
But if coach Bob Sutton’s team wins at Tri-County (0-2) on Friday night, the Knights are more than halfway to playoff eligibility, with Blue Ridge last reaching the postseason in 2001.
“We’ve worked hard to get here,” Sutton said. “We were expecting this type of start, but staying true to what we do has got us to this point.”
The play of Blue Ridge’s offensive line has paved the way for the Knights to average 36 points through their first two games.
“Our offensive line is playing lights out,” said Sutton, who starts senior right tackle Colton Pearl (6-3, 270), junior right guard Kolby Kramer (5-11, 180), sophomore center Cameron Lindsay (6-1, 275), senior left guard Zach Drozs (5-6, 190) and senior left tackle Bobby Schumacher (6-7, 265). “We’re a balanced offense, and our offensive line is just key.”
A win at Tri-County would mark a second straight road triumph before Blue Ridge hosts Cumberland next Friday night.
“The home-field advantage we like to enjoy is that when the race cars are going around at the Farmer City Speedway, we like to think the other teams can’t hear themselves,” Sutton said with a laugh. “The community has really been backing us pretty darn good. The seniors have taken their lumps the last three years, but right now, we’re having a lot of fun.”