Sages head into IPC tilt with ‘playoff game’ vibe
MONTICELLO — Cully Welter took over Monticello football following an 0-9 season for the Sages in 2008.
Avoiding winless campaigns hasn’t been an issue for Welter in the following years.
Monticello earned its 12th playoff berth in Welter’s 13-year tenure via a 28-0 shutout of Rantoul last Friday. The only “miss” was last spring, when the IHSA did not have any playoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sages improved to 6-0 with their win against the Eagles and are 107-30 under Welter, with a 5-5 record in 2010 the only non-winning season.
“Every year’s a new year, so you just want the experience to be as positive as possible for those kids,” Welter said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of good players and some really good assistant coaches. Any success we have certainly goes to them.
“It’s nice to be in the playoffs on a yearly basis, and I hope that never stops.”
Monticello will be involved in this season’s playoffs, which start with first-round games Oct. 29 and Oct. 30. How the Sages enter those playoffs remains to be seen.
Sure, Monticello is unbeaten right now. But its final three regular-season games present a difficult test: at Paxton-Buckley-Loda (4-2) this Friday, at Prairie Central (5-1) in Week 8 and at home against Unity (6-0) in Week 9.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Welter said. “But 6-0 can turn into 6-3 in a heartbeat with the schedule we have remaining.”
Plenty of Sages will need to step up in order to make a 9-0 regular-season mark a reality.
Senior quarterback Joey Sprinkle continues to be consistently effective. He’s completed 63 percent of his 140 pass attempts for 1,551 yards and 15 touchdowns against three interceptions. Sprinkle has added 373 rushing yards as well.
Outpacing Sprinkle in the rushing department is senior Jacob Tackett, who’s averaged 6.2 yards per carry en route to 409 yards and six touchdowns.
“If you can give him a crease, he can go a long way,” Welter said of Tackett. “Even if (he’s) not carrying the ball 30 times a game, he’s going to chip in wherever he can help the team.”
Sprinkle’s connection with senior Triston Foran (42 catches, 716 yards, eight touchdowns) is well-documented. That said, junior Spencer Mitze (17 catches, 240 yards) also has carved out a receiving niche.
“I think he’s set the record for most times being tackled at the 1-yard line,” said a laughing Welter, referencing Mitze’s lack of a single touchdown catch through six games despite garnering the second-most catches on the team. “He runs good routes and understands what he’s supposed to do. His emergence has been helpful.”
At linebacker, Mitze (27 tackles, 61/2 tackles for loss, 11/2 sacks) and senior Ashton Wassom (331/2 tackles, five tackles for loss) are at the forefront of a Sages defense that has allowed barely 12 points per game on average.
Welter said he’s also been impressed with senior defensive end Kaleb Reid (11 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks), junior free safety Drew Sheppard (171/2 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception) and senior linebacker Wyatt Kenyon (17 tackles, three tackles for loss).
“We’re going to have to hold up to (PBL’s) physical play,” Welter said. “I’ve been very impressed with their balance on offense, how hard (Panthers senior Tyler Smith) runs and how big they are up front.”
This will be the first time Monticello and PBL have faced off as Illini Prairie Conference opponents.
“Our athletic director said it kind of feels like a playoff game,” Welter said. The Sages and Panthers met in a 1991 Class 2A first-round game, with Monticello winning 28-6.
“It’s going to be a fun new experience,” Welter added, “and hopefully, it’s a good game.”
Blue Devils back on track after difficult loss
VILLA GROVE — Heath Wilson and his Villa Grove football players didn’t enjoy the 47-8 loss Cumberland handed the Blue Devils at Russ Ghere Field on Sept. 24.
But the Blue Devils also didn’t let a loss to a previously state-ranked opponent derail their season. As shown by last Friday’s 37-14 triumph at Sangamon Valley that keeps Villa Grove (4-2) one win away from becoming eligible for the playoffs.
“We just took (the loss) as how we had to change how we execute,” said Wilson, in his fourth season running the Blue Devils. “We had to get back to some of the basic stuff we knew but ... didn’t execute at Cumberland. It just brought us back down to Earth, and we put in a lot more hard work.”
Villa Grove outscored Sangamon Valley 22-0 in the first half of the Week 6 game and didn’t let up, limiting the Storm to just 196 yards of total offense.
It was a necessary breakthrough for the Blue Devils’ defense, which has given up 35 or more points during three different games this fall.
“We’ve changed our mentality,” Wilson said. “If we get back to the playoffs and get more wins, our defense is going to have to step up for us.”
Senior Tyler Wilson and junior Parker Stevens have come up big at linebacker, and Villa Grove’s secondary is fueled by junior free safety Brady Clodfelder, junior cornerback Robert Francher and sophomore cornerback Layne Rund.
“They’re getting better and playing real well down the stretch,” Heath Wilson said.
The Blue Devils’ offense typically goes as junior running back Luke Zimmerman goes.
That was certainly the case versus Sangamon Valley, with Zimmerman tearing through the Storm defense for 165 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries.
“Luke’s our workhorse on and off the field,” Wilson said. “His goal is to play big-time college football, and his work ethic is huge.”
Senior quarterback Liam Barr has proven steady, throwing for and running for a touchdown last Friday. An offensive line that includes former All-Lincoln Prairie Conference picks Deandre Reinhart and Daelin Price — both seniors — opens up space for Zimmerman and typically keeps Barr clean.
The Blue Devils’ first shot at postseason qualification occurs with a 7 p.m. Friday home kickoff against Tri-County (2-4). The game serves as Villa Grove’s senior night and its “pink night” for breast cancer awareness.
“This is the class I started with in the program four years ago,” Wilson said. “So it’s kind of a special class, sticking with it four years and giving it their all.”
Knights find first win in Schubert’s tenure
FARMER CITY — Matt Schubert reached out to then-Blue Ridge football coach Bob Sutton five years ago with a goal of “holding a camera or something,” as Schubert puts it.
Schubert, a LeRoy native, just wanted to contribute in some way to the area high school football scene.
“About halfway through that season (Sutton) pulled me down on the sideline,” Schubert said, “and from there, I was an assistant coach.”
A lot has changed since.
The Knights now are part of the Illinois 8-Man Association. And Schubert now is their head coach, beginning this season after Sutton’s retirement.
“No clue that was going to happen (when I first started with the team),” Schubert said.
Blue Ridge lost its first five games, but won 28-12 at Metro East Lutheran last Friday night in Edwardsville.
“It was a huge morale booster,” Schubert said. “The travel wasn’t all that great, but Metro East is a standup program, and it felt good to get the first win under my belt. And a bunch of these young kids, it was their first win, so it was huge.”
Schubert’s roster only has 17 players at this stage. Not terribly unusual for the 8-man game.
But it is a young roster. The Knights’ only senior is Kaden Weisman, who was the team’s quarterback but had to switch positions after a hand injury. Freshman Joey Cole is now the quarterback.
Freshman Jayden Weisman started at running back early in the season but is now sidelined with an injury of his own. Sophomore Cole Pemble has stepped up in the backfield, posting 147 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s victory. Junior Riley Pruitt and sophomore Cuda Cline lead the Knights’ defense as a pair of linebackers.
Blue Ridge can start a winning streak Friday when it hosts Milford/Cissna Park (3-3).
“We’re going to go into this game with the mentality that we can win and we’re going to win,” Schubert said. “But we respect Milford very much.”