Sports Editor MATT DANIELS checks in on St. Joseph-Ogden and Villa Grove/Heritage ahead of their Friday night games:
1 ST. JOSEPH — Three different St. Joseph-Ogden running backs have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game this season. Senior Brayden Weaver and sophomore Keaton Nolan accomplished the feat last Friday night during the Spartans’ 18-7 home win against Bloomington Central Catholic.
Meanwhile, Jarrett Stevenson — who eclipsed the mark in a Week 1 win against St. Thomas More — watched from the sidelines.
Stevenson, a senior and SJ-O’s featured tailback heading into the season, is out indefinitely, along with his 272 rushing yards and four touchdowns this season after suffering an injury in Week 2 at Rantoul. SJ-O coach Shawn Skinner declined to specify the type of injury Stevenson has, but said he won’t play this Friday night, either, when SJ-O (3-0) travels to Tolono to take on rival Unity (2-1) at Hicks Field.
Meaning Weaver (187 yards, three TDs) and Nolan (159 yards, one TD) will have significant roles once again on the offensive side of the ball against the Rockets. Weaver starts at middle linebacker for the Spartans and Nolan is one of SJ-O’s starting safeties.
“Brayden has a high football IQ and is just a football player,” Skinner said. “I don’t care what era you play in, he’s a throwback. We’re lucky to have him.”
Nolan only had six carries in SJ-O’s first two games before he more than tripled that output that with 20 rushing attempts against BCC.
“Even Nolan would probably admit to some nerves starting the game, but he got better as he went,” Skinner said. “We know he’s the future running back of the program, and once he got a lather going, he started to run better.”
The 7 p.m. Illini Prairie Conference game between SJ-O and Unity always has high implications considering both programs have storied histories, with a combined 10 state runner-up finishes and 56 playoff appearances between the two teams. The fact both teams are playing well this season — SJ-O is one of two unbeaten teams in the 10-team Illini Prairie along with Chillicothe IVC and Unity’s only loss happened in a 21-20 setback to the Grey Ghosts in Week 1 — only adds to the narrative surrounding Friday night.
“From our standpoint, we’re excited to be playing a team that’s playing good football,” Skinner said. “They’ve gotten on a roll the last two weeks, and they could have easily won that game against Chillicothe. We’re still a work in progress and not a finished product by any means, but we’re finding things to be successful at and the kids are taking steps forward.”
Since both programs became conference opponents again starting in 2014 — first in the Okaw Valley and then in the Illini Prairie — Unity holds a slight 4-3 edge in the series. SJ-O is striving for its second straight victory against the Rockets after winning 38-14 on its home field last season.
And stout defense by both teams has played a factor in strong starts to the 2019 season. The Spartans have only yielded an average of 7.7 points per game, with the Rockets only giving up an average of 7 points per game on the basis of two consecutive shutouts.
Skinner points to senior linebackers Drew Coursey and Sam Wesley, along with senior defensive back Payton Cain, as key cogs for why SJ-O’s defense has stood out so far.
“Drew just gets better every week, and Sam just keeps taking strides,” Skinner said. “Payton has brought a level of security to our defensive backfield because he’s a smart kid and a competitor. We understand there’s a big challenge in front of us this week, and that’s why it really matters.”
2 VILLA GROVE — Heath Wilson and his Villa Grove/Heritage football players will experience something different this Friday night.A legitimate road trip. The Blue Devils (1-2) haven’t played outside Douglas County this season, with the first three weeks marked by two home games at Russ Ghere Field and a Week 1 trip to county rival Tuscola. VG/H will try to even its record on Friday when it plays Sangamon Valley/Tri-City (1-2) at 7 p.m. in Niantic.
Despite a losing record, Wilson said his players are still confident they can become the eighth VG/H team to reach the playoffs this decade.
Junior Blake Smith is in his first season at quarterback for the Blue Devils, completing 17 of 40 passes for 371 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions.
“He’s one of the faster kids we have, and he’s not afraid to run it or throw it,” Wilson said. “We’ve had a few too many turnovers at this point, but that’ll get better as the season goes on and he continues to progress.”
Defensively, seniors Chase Burwell, Keagan Patterson and Zayzen Price, along with junior Ezra Ely, shore up the linebackers for VG/H, while juniors Logan Nohren and Carson Howard are key along the defensive line.
“We have a lot of skill guys on that side of the ball, but there’s a lot of guys that have contributed,” Wilson said. “Yes, we’ve given up some big points so far, but they’re developing each week.”
Playing state-ranked teams like Tuscola (55-14 loss) and Arcola (41-6 loss last Friday) has sped up that development.
“It basically tells you where you stand,” Wilson said. “Everybody wants to be like Tuscola and Arcola and the big-time programs. It lets us know where we need to be by Week 9.”