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FISHER — Jake Palmer pondered the email for a bit.

A Class 5A program from the Chicago suburbs reached out to the Fisher football coach. Looking for a game against the Bunnies, a 1A program with just 175 students at the school in northern Champaign County.

“You’re looking at it for a second wondering, ‘Is this even possible?’” Palmer said. “You also feel for the other team, too, because they’re just a team trying to do good things for their kids.”

Palmer is always on alert for potential nonconference games to fill out future football schedules. He knows he has seven games against fellow Heart of Illinois Conference foes each fall.

For the upcoming fall season and in the 2022 season, Palmer has two nonconference games he feels comfortable with: Villa Grove on Aug. 27 and Ottawa Marquette on Oct. 23.

Villa Grove is Palmer’s alma mater, with the two programs set to open each other’s season both this fall and again in 2022. This year’s game is in Fisher before the two teams play in Villa Grove in 2022.

Palmer said it was a natural, easy fit to get the Bunnies and Blue Devils to meet on the football field. Villa Grove athletic director Noreen Acton was in that same role when Palmer played football for the Blue Devils before he graduated from the Douglas County school in 2009.

“That was something that was a couple years in the works, where we had joked about it and then they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be up in a couple years without a contract in Week 1. Are you guys free?’” Palmer said. “So we were able to get a two-year deal there.”

The first game between Villa Grove and Fisher was supposed to take place last fall before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a condensed spring season, and saw Fisher only play four games.

“I’m looking forward to hosting the Blue Devils this year,” Palmer said, “and going back in 2022 to the field I grew up playing on.”

With the HOIC losing a football program in Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland when the Falcons elected to play 8-man football prior to the 2019 season, the number of nonconference games went from one to two for all HOIC programs. Palmer said the conference came up with a strategy where teams would alternate what dates they would have nonconference games. For Fisher, it’s Week 1 and Week 9 right now.

“With nonconference opponents, if they’re Week 1 or Week 2, they’re a bit more manageable because a lot of those teams have those weeks open,” Palmer said. “It’s about finding games that can put our kids in a position to be successful where they have a fighting chance.”

The matchup with Ottawa Marquette — the Bunnies will travel to Ottawa this year before the Crusaders are set to conclude the 2022 regular season with a trip to Fisher — happened after Ottawa Marquette athletic director Todd Hopkins and football coach Tom Jobst reached out to Palmer and Fisher athletic director Cody Diskin.

“Ottawa Marquette is a great football team with a lot of tradition that’s not too far away,” Palmer said of a program that has made eight straight 1A playoff appearances. “When you’re a school of Fisher’s size, how many opportunities are you going to have the chance to play someone who has a similar amount of kids that you have, even if they are a private school? We jumped at that chance, and we’re happy to get it filled, even though that’s a perennial football powerhouse.”

This year’s game for the Bunnies at Ottawa Marquette is set for a 1 p.m. Saturday kickoff, mere hours before the IHSA is slated to release its playoff pairings. Fisher will vie for its fourth consecutive playoff appearance this fall under Palmer.

“Our goal is to go up to Ottawa, play and then come home to celebrate a playoff berth,” Palmer said.

If they do, it’ll likely happen based on how they fared in seven games against HOIC opponents. But the two nonconference games could just be as important when it comes to the playoff picture.

“It’s about finding games that can put our kids in a position to be successful where they have a fighting chance,” Palmer said. “You really have to try and find a balance of playing teams that you feel like you can compete with on a regular basis, especially when we have a difficult conference schedule, but also avoiding that ping of desperation of, ‘Well, OK, if we don’t take this game, what are we going to do?’ With this season and next season, we felt like we hit the nonconference jackpot.”

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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