cola wars

Tuscola’s Hunter Branca and the Warriors will hope to make their fans happy during Friday’s trip to Warrensburg-Latham for Tuscola’s first football game since Sept. 24. The Warriors have been sidelined due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the school.

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Warriors still believe they have ‘something to play for’

TUSCOLA — It’s unusual to consider the Tuscola football team not being part of the playoffs.

The idea is largely foreign to people of a certain age, as the Warriors have missed the playoffs just once since 1994 — not counting last school year’s playoff-less schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Andy Romine’s current Tuscola squad is facing that possibility. But the Warriors (2-5) aren’t operating in fear of it.

Exactly the opposite, in fact.

“We let a couple wins get away from us early and had our backs against the wall,” Romine said. “But certainly we know now, coming out of this, you’ve got two weeks. You win both, you keep playing. We really feel that’s going to be the case.

“If we slip up, it’s going to be different here this fall than it usually is.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement from Romine, who guided Tuscola to the playoffs each year between 2015 and 2019.

First the “coming out of this” part.

That’s referring to a COVID-19 pause the Warriors only exited on Monday. They haven’t played a game since Sept. 24 when they stunned then-Class 1A No. 3 Central A&M 21-14 to improve to 2-3 overall.

Not more than a week later, Romine had to put a stop to all football activities as Tuscola High School shifted to temporary all-remote learning.

Romine acknowledged at that time that his team possessed double-digit positive COVID-19 cases.

“The kids are excited to be back,” Romine said Monday evening. “We’ve still got a couple kids out on quarantine, but they (came back Tuesday or Wednesday) and are looking forward to getting back at it. We feel like, if we win a couple, we have something to play for.”

Therein lies the second thing to address in Romine’s comments.

A Week 8 victory at Warrensburg-Latham (5-2) and a Week 9 home victory versus Meridian (4-3) would put the Warriors at 4-5.

Which typically doesn’t qualify a team for the IHSA postseason.

This pandemic-affected campaign, however, is anything but normal. There simply may not be enough five-win programs in some classes this fall to fill out playoff brackets.

It’s what Romine is banking on, since Tuscola’s playoff wins total — the cumulative number of victories amassed by the Warriors’ opponents — should rank among the highest both in small-school football and statewide.

Tuscola has competed against Arcola (5-2), Cumberland (6-1), Indiana-based Parke Heritage (6-2), Shelbyville (5-2) and Central A&M (5-2). The Warriors also were assessed a forfeit loss versus St. Teresa (7-0).

“There’s no reason to think about what happened earlier in the season other than to use it to try to get better and to try to eliminate some of those mistakes,” Romine said. “But our kids are really excited about the opportunity. And you look at the 1A south (postseason bracket) and feel like, if you get in, anybody’s got a shot.”

Stout defense will be key to Tuscola gaining postseason entry. After allowing an average of 29 points per game across Weeks 2 through 4, the Warriors successfully slowed a Central A&M attack that presently averages 25 points.

Romine said senior defensive backs Caden Baer, Eric Badgett and Ian Buchanan will be critical to limiting Warrensburg-Latham, which Romine said has been dealing with a key backfield injury.

“We think we’ve got a better team than (2-5),” Romine said. “If we put it together, we feel we’ve got the ability to beat anybody there is.”

Falcons trying to find ‘continuity’ at last moment

GIBSON CITY — Mike Allen’s latest Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley football team faced an uphill battle before its season-opening game versus Carlinville even concluded.

Awstace Grauer and Braylen Kean missed the Week 1 nonconference matchup. Then, Illinois commit Aidan Laughery went out in the third quarter with an injury.

That’s three seniors on a roster with just nine of them. And it’s not as if those are the only Falcons who have been sidelined for one reason or another.

“With the injuries we’ve had this year, we’ve never had any continuity on offense or defense,” said Allen, in his 21st season in charge of GCMS football. “We’re trying to put different kids in different positions, and our kids have done an outstanding job picking things up in their effort. Just sometimes when you play out of position, you’re just not as good as the guys across from you who do it every day.”

Slowly but surely, though, the Falcons (3-4) are getting closer to full strength. And not a moment too soon.

Laughery made his long-awaited return during last Friday’s 35-8 loss to Tri-Valley — the third in a row for GCMS. Laughery rushed for a 70-yard touchdown to account for the bulk of the Falcons’ points.

Grauer and Kean had been back in the fold even sooner, as well.

“(Laughery) looked very good,” Allen said. “Our blocking schemes just were not working. We didn’t have a lot of time or room (to run). But he felt good after the game. That was the biggest thing.”

GCMS, which won Class 2A state championships in 2017 and 2018 and hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2012, is facing a major fork in the road for its season.

The Falcons soon will make a three-hour trip northwest to take on Forreston (5-2) in a 3 p.m. Saturday nonconference game before a Week 9 home game versus Heyworth (1-6). Win both and GCMS qualifies for the playoffs. Win just one of two and the Falcons will be left to wonder if their 4-5 record is good enough for postseason eligibility.

“We try to remind our kids ... we haven’t lost any bad games,” Allen said. GCMS’s four defeats have occurred against opponents with a combined 21-7 record. “It’s frustrating, but we know our kids can compete at this level. We just want to get healthy and give our kids a chance to show what they can do.”

The Falcons will need to show quite a bit more on offense if they’re to keep competing past Week 9.

GCMS has scored double-digit points twice all season, has been shut out twice and hasn’t generated more than eight points in a game since Week 4.

Laughery’s return should aid future outputs, while sophomore Ty Cribbett also gained key varsity repetitions in Laughery’s absence.

Allen noted that Cribbett is just one of several young athletes to play in important situations as a result of lineup juggling, with Allen adding sophomores Carson Maxey, Carter Kallal and Connor Mueller and freshman Brayden Elliott to that list.

“Hopefully, we can play better than we’ve been playing,” Allen said. “We told them, ‘Hey, we’re not out of the playoffs. We have an opportunity. We just have to control what we can control.’”

Raiders look to secure playoff berth with home victory

GILMAN — Jason Thiele’s Iroquois West football team likely will be involved in at least one playoff game this fall.

That’ll be a first for the Raiders since 2006. Not long after Thiele helped the 2003 IW squad to a Class 2A state championship as a senior.

The Raiders (5-2) became playoff eligible last Friday by knocking off then-Class 2A No. 8 Clifton Central 13-6.

“This means a lot to not only us as a football team, but to the community, as well,” Thiele said. “You can’t go anywhere without someone saying, ‘Congratulations’ and ‘Awesome to see it back.’ It’s been great.”

But Thiele and his staff aren’t treating five wins as a guarantee of postseason involvement.

Instead, the IW coaching staff is pointing to a Week 8 home game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday versus Dwight (1-6) and a Week 9 nonconference date at Clinton (1-6) with a single objective for the players: Don’t leave it up to the playoff selection committee to determine your fate.

“We’ve got to handle business,” Thiele said. “Playoff eligible doesn’t mean guaranteed. ... The kids are super motivated. Add in senior day for us at home and these kids are ready.”

Defeating Clifton Central certainly added to IW’s current hype.

The Raiders entered halftime of that Vermilion Valley Conference game trailing 6-0 but stayed committed to limiting the Comets’ vertical passing after being torched by Momence in the same capacity earlier this season. Then, IW turned to its multi-faceted backfield — led by junior Trystyn Schacht’s 22 carries for 136 yards and two touchdowns.

“We have a lot of motions in our running game,” Thiele said. “When we put Auston (Miller) in the second half in that slot spot and started motioning him, it started to mess with their defense in a way I didn’t think it was going to. We just kept going with it. It helped us pick up the yardage we needed and opened things up for Trystyn to take it to the house.”

IW’s defense came up with perhaps its biggest performance of the season, as well.

The senior Miller, senior Illinois commit Clayton Leonard, junior Division I prospect Cannon Leonard and senior Aiden Tilstra combined for two sacks and six quarterback hurries.

Sophomore Damian Alvarado chipped in an interception to go with four pass deflections from senior Daltin Austin and three pass deflections from senior Gabriel Alvarez.

“I thought maybe the Oakwood game (a 33-32 overtime win in Week 2), we weren’t going to be able to top that,” Thiele said. “And then (Clifton Central) happened. I’ll take the Friday win over Oakwood any day of the week.”

Dwight is a familiar opponent for the Raiders. Clinton in Week 9 is not.

The Maroons’ 546 enrollment far outweighs IW’s 310. This gave Thiele pause when Raiders athletic director Kristy Arie began lining up the game as a replacement for Watseka, which discontinued its varsity season back in September. Clinton had an open date because it was set to play Sullivan/Okaw Valley, which also stopped its season in September.

“My initial thought was, ‘They’re a large school,’” Thiele said. “(Arie) said, ‘If we’re a legitimate playoff team, we play whoever.’ I said, ‘When you put it like that, you’re right. Let’s do it.’ You don’t want to go into the playoffs on a bye week. ... We just felt the need to play that Week 9 game.”

Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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