GIBSON CITY — Aidan Laughery soaked up the spotlight Wednesday evening at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley’s football field as the senior announced on live television his verbal commitment to Bret Bielema’s Illinois program.
Laughery is integral to any success veteran coach Mike Allen’s Falcons experience this fall, beginning with an Aug. 28 season opener at home versus nonconference opponent Carlinville.
But the running back/safety won’t be working solo during his final high school season. Evidence of that surrounded Laughery when he made his college decision.
Most of the GCMS roster filled the space behind Laughery, his parents and his older brother. Showing support for their star teammate, just like they will during the next few months.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a full schedule, and just having a full nine games is going to be great,” senior running back/linebacker Zander Wier said. “We’re just really excited to be back.”
The Falcons check in at No. 8 in The News-Gazette’s preseason rankings after a condensed spring season earlier this year saw them go 2-2.
GCMS lost its Week 1 and 2 games to Fieldcrest and Tri-Valley by a combined 11 points before romping past El Paso-Gridley and Deer Creek-Mackinaw.
Those results happened with a largely young lineup. Allen has graduated just seven seniors, though the Falcons will feel the effect of All-Heart of Illinois Conference athletes like Isaiah Chatman and Dallas Whelchel graduating.
“We had a lot of freshmen that stepped up and played, and a lot of sophomores,” Allen said. “Those four games, we grew and learned a lot. That fourth game (a 41-16 victory against Dee-Mack), we became a better team.”
One player who was unable to improve much on the field was quarterback Kellen DeSchepper. Now a senior and the expected starter this fall, DeSchepper suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 last spring.
“If we end up having some close games, we’ll kind of know how to handle the pressure and what to do in that situation,” DeSchepper said. “Our execution is going to be a big part. As long as we do that, I think we can put up a lot of points.”
Allen said there isn’t much competition for DeSchepper in the quarterbacks room right now, so DeSchepper will need to self-motivate.
“He was very confident going into last year before he got injured,” Allen said. “This summer, he’s gotten very strong in the weight room, so we’re excited to see how much that carries over to the field.”
Of course, having a future Illini in the backfield helps ease some of the quarterback’s burden. Laughery rushed for 464 yards — more than 7 yards per carry — and seven touchdowns in four games as a junior.
Laughery and fellow senior Awstace Grauer, who suited up at receiver last season, both qualified for the most recent Class 1A boys’ state track and field meet in multiple sprint events, as well. Wier and senior Jake Zumwalt are also backfield options.
An experienced offensive line — featuring the likes of seniors Brandon Mueller, Markus Miguel and Jacob Rutledge — further stabilizes GCMS’s offensive prospects. Allen said he’s especially excited to see Rutledge in action after numerous injuries derailed his previous three seasons.
“As we get further (into the season), I feel like we’re going to be good together,” Rutledge said. “We’ve known the younger kids for a while. We’ve done a lot of work with them when they were in youth. So it should be good.”
Shutdown defense was the Falcons’ calling card during Class 2A state championship runs in 2017 and 2018, and it continues to serve GCMS well in the present. Allen was impressed with how that unit looked in a recent 7-on-7 matchup with Ford County rival Paxton-Buckley-Loda.
Mueller projects as the Falcons’ defensive playcaller at middle linebacker, Laughery makes life difficult for opposing receivers in the secondary and both Grauer and Wier are returning linebackers.
Senior Braylen Kean and sophomore Seth Barnes — the brother of current Illinois outside linebacker Bryce Barnes — can slot in at linebacker or defensive lineman, while Miguel, Zumwalt and juniors Logan Wilfong and Mason Kutemeier will aid the front four.
“We have a very strong D-line and ... linebacker corps,” Zumwalt said. “With Aidan being as good as he is ... we’re going to be strong, both offense and defense.”
One clear hurdle facing the Falcons is their schedule. Despite moving from the HOIC Large division to the Small division because of school enrollment size, GCMS’s regular-season slate appears as difficult as ever.
Carlinville is a strong Class 3A team, and Week 8 sees the Falcons travel to Forreston for a meeting with a team in northwest Illinois that’s won three Class 1A state championships since 2014.
Visits to Fisher, Eureka and Tri-Valley also don’t do GCMS any favors.
Even so, Miguel said he and his teammates were sad to see PBL taken off the schedule. The Panthers are now in the Illini Prairie Conference, and their nine-game slate is against all league foes.
“We always want to (face) bigger challenges,” Miguel said. “Everyone always looks down on us because we’re a smaller school, but then we come out there and we kick their butts.”