COLFAX — Cully Welter looks back fondly at his time as the Ridgeview football coach.
Before Welter started his ongoing 13-year stretch as the Monticello football leader and won three state titles with Aledo, he directed the Mustangs during their 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 seasons. A 2-7 initial campaign was followed by three postseason berths, including a 1997 Class 1A quarterfinals appearance.
“We got on a run there, and it did bring a lot of excitement to the community,” Welter said. “I want nothing but the best for them, and I know they’ve probably been pretty hungry to have a team like this.”
This fall’s team has achieved something never before seen in program history.
Coach Hal Chiodo’s 13th-seeded Ridgeview/Lexington cooperative is one win away from a Class 1A state championship game berth. The Mustangs (8-4) must win at sixth-seeded Lena-Winslow (10-2) in Saturday’s 2 p.m. semifinal game in order to reach that plateau.
“They’ve experienced that success in basketball,” Welter said. “For them to do it in football ... after a 5-4 (regular) season, that’s definitely a Cinderella-type story.”
This is Ridgeview’s first taste of the state semifinals. Lexington, meanwhile, qualified for the semifinal round nine times outside of the cooperative and collected the 1A state runner-up trophy in 1989, 1994, 2001 and 2009. Chiodo actually was the Minutemen’s coach for that 1994 run.
But Ridgeview/Lexington hadn’t even cracked the postseason field since the cooperative’s formation in April 2015.
“They’ve gone to the state championship four times, and we’ve still yet to reach that,” said Mike Benton, a Mustangs defensive assistant who oversaw the Ridgeview program between 2000 and 2012. “It’s been pretty fun to watch, to see these two communities come together. We were arch-rivals before all of this in pretty much every sport.”
Jake Kennedy, the Mustangs’ coach in the previous five seasons before Chiodo took over, also remains as an assistant on Chiodo’s staff this fall.
Both he and Benton said they thought this latest version of Ridgeview/Lexington football could see some success.
“I didn’t know that it would be this deep of a run, but I knew we’d be very good this year,” said Kennedy, also the Mustangs’ athletic director. “It’s the first time in six years we’ve been able to put juniors and seniors on the football field. When you have 31 juniors and seniors and most of them have played a varsity season and a half, then you have the makings to have a pretty good season.”
Welter and Chiodo briefly crossed paths as the Ridgeview and Lexington football coaches. Welter’s first season helming the Mustangs was Chiodo’s last with the Minutemen.
“He’s a very good coach,” Welter said. “The biggest thing they had going for them, other than maybe being better than people expected, was they play in that (Heart of Illinois Conference). They’re battle-tested going into the playoffs. Maybe they caught some people by surprise.”
Kennedy and Benton agree, with Kennedy noting that five of the six programs in the HOIC Large division qualified for the playoffs this season. Tri-Valley, in fact, is an unbeaten Class 2A semifinalist.
“The Eureka game (a 43-42 double-overtime Ridgeview/Lexington loss on Oct. 8) we kind of came together and started playing better football,” Benton said. “We’ve gone on a five-game winning streak since that time. I’m sort of surprised that we’re this far, but I also knew that this group of kids was going to be pretty good.”
Benton pushed the Mustangs to eight consecutive playoff showings between 2000 and 2007. Then Ridgeview hit a downturn with just three wins across its next four seasons, though the Mustangs went 7-3 in Benton’s last foray as their head coach in 2012.
“When I started, there was 350 students (at the school). Now, we’re down to about 160,” Benton said. “I just think there’s fewer kids coming out, and that kind of hit us probably in 2008, 2009, and it kind of just continued to snowball until we were getting maybe 20 to 25 kids out for football total. When I started, we had 50 kids out.”
Chiodo’s current roster numbers 31, and numerous athletes have stepped up to get Ridgeview/Lexington to this stage.
Junior Kaden Farrell and senior Evan Antonio have been named to the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 1A all-state first team. Junior Jacob Whitehill is the club’s leading tackler. Senior Carter Coffman has returned from a broken collarbone to run the offense as starting quarterback, with junior Alec Thomas chipping in at playcaller. Junior Logan Friedmansky is a do-it-all player on both sides of the ball.
“I do think we can take that next step,” Benton said. “These kids really believe in each other. ... We’ve got a lot less of the me, me, me going on and a lot more of the team going on. When you can get your kids believing in team and not worried about what they’re getting out of it (individually), you’ve got a pretty special group.”
Pivoting back to Welter’s basketball comment, it is interesting Mustangs football is making an extended postseason push at this particular moment.
Rodney Kellar directed Ridgeview basketball from 1986 through last spring. The program amassed 11 regional titles, five sectional plaques and a 2014 Class 1A third-place finish in Kellar’s storied tenure, which included just five sub-.500 seasons.
But Kellar stepped down from his post earlier this year, ending a Mustangs hoops era.
Right on time, Ridgeview/Lexington football seems to have started a new athletic era worth talking about.
“Football’s kind of played second fiddle,” Welter said. “I remember, definitely, a passionate community. There’s five towns that go into Ridgeview.
“I remember the excitement when we won our last game my first year and how that sort of translated into enthusiasm for next year and how the kids were hungry to be successful. It’s just a joy to see them eventually have some success.”