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MONTICELLO — Cully Welter isn’t one to overhype a situation.
So when he says “the jury’s out” on what his 2019 Monticello football team will amount to, it could be taken with a grain of salt. After all, the Sages — The News-Gazette’s preseason No. 1 team entering this upcoming season — are the defending Class 3A state champions.
But much has changed in Piatt County in less than a year. The Sages have lost 15 starters on offense and defense from last year’s team because of graduation.
Gone are reigning News-Gazette Player of the Year Braden Snyder and four other 2018 N-G All-Area first-team selections.
The door is open for a different bunch of athletes to create history, on top of Monticello’s first-ever crown last year.
“Coach expects a lot out of us after being state champions,” said senior Matt Kerr, a returning starting defensive end. “We really want to do good this year. The pressure’s on, but I think we can handle it.”
For as much alteration as the Sages have seen, some things are hard to lose. Such as a moniker Monticello carried well before last season.
“We do the same thing we’ve been doing,” said Mason Bonds, a senior lineman. “We’re a small, fast team, and that’s how we play to our strengths.”
Interestingly enough, two of the Sages’ three remaining offensive starters are hefty senior guards in 6-foot-5 Briggs Fultz and 6-4 Nick Wassom.
“This group might be a little bit bigger,” Welter said. “That remains to be seen, but I do feel good about what we’re capable of.”
The task of replacing Snyder and his 3,877 all-purpose yards at quarterback falls upon the shoulders of senior Nic Tackels.
Senior receiver Spencer Brown also sticks around, as does multi-purpose threat Chris Brown, a junior.
“We’re still pretty young, so there’s a lot to do overall (to get prepared),” Spencer Brown said. “There’s still a learning curve there.”
Kerr expressed a positive opinion about Monticello’s defense despite only he, Tackels and defensive tackle Collin Reffett still in the fold from last November’s state championship game with Byron.
“Safeties, cornerbacks, they’re all really good,” Kerr said. “If I’m judging from 7-on-7 ... I’m excited to see what they can actually do in an 11-on-11 game.”
What can’t be overrated is the effect Welter, entering his 11th season on the Monticello sidelines, and his staff have on the Sages. Welter is 89-26 in his first 10 seasons at Monticello, with a playoff appearance each season.
“They’re very hard on us, which is a good thing,” Kerr said. “Coach Welter’s a great guy, a great football coach. He cares about you, not the fame. He just wants you to be good and successful.”
No doubt that’s what the Monticello community wants to see more of from its gridiron group.
Though fans won’t get to fully greet the most recent 3A state titlists until a Week 3 home date with St. Thomas More after Monticello opens the season with road games at Olympia (Aug. 30) and Chillicothe Illinois Valley Central (Sept. 6), the Sages look forward to that moment.
“The whole town is kind of expecting you to be good,” Bonds said. “It’s a lot of pressure to have on your shoulders.”
A sort of stress Monticello football thrived under last season en route to a perfect 14-0 record.
No, this isn’t that same team. But it eventually could arrive at the same outcome.
“I’m trying to get them to understand that you can’t live off last year’s reputation, but you do want to embrace it,” Welter said, “and hopefully use that as a motivation to find your own success.”
Monday morning quarterback
A kid with a name like Nic Tackels seemingly was meant to play football. The Monticello senior will be trying to avoid hard hits, however, as he assumes play-
calling duties from 2018 News-Gazette Player of the Year Braden Snyder. “He’s a little bit different kid,” Sages coach Cully Welter said of Tackels. “He’s a tough kid, as you know from last year stepping in playing linebacker. I feel good about him.”
Entering his 11th season at Monticello, Welter is doing something he has never had to with the Sages: defend a state championship. “Our seniors took the bull by the horns in the offseason and have done a good job of taking control,” Welter said. “It’s not as easy as just stepping on the field and being last year’s team, so there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to do, that last year’s team didn’t, to be successful.”
We’re talking playoffs
➜ Their first playoff win happened ... in 1980, when Monticello defeated Mt. Zion 13-12 in a Class 3A first-round game.
➜ Their most recent playoff win was ... in 2018, when the Sages defeated Byron 24-20 in the Class 3A state championship game.
➜ Their best-ever finish was ... last season’s Class 3A state championship, the first in school history.
When you can see Monticello
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 30 at Olympia 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 at Chillicothe IVC 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. St. Thomas More 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Rantoul 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 vs. Bloomington CC 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Unity 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. Pontiac 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Prairie Central 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. St. Joseph-Ogden 7 p.m.