Most of us who follow H&R-area high school football on an annual basis think we have it all figured out. I mean, why even play the season? We already know what’s going to happen.
Of course, it never plays out exactly like we think. Last year, the H&R predicted MacArthur would win seven games and have the player of the year in Brian Jennnings. The Generals won three games and Jennings didn’t gain 500 yards rushing. We picked Olney to go 4-5. The Tigers won the Little Illini Egyptian and a playoff game. We thought Mount Zion would go 8-3. Instead, the Braves won three games.
So there’s plenty we don’t know. Here are 10 things we’re wondering about heading into this season as practices begin today.
What will Jaquay Owens’ impact be for the MacArthur Generals?
Owens was a big reason why Eisenhower, though the Panthers won just one game, was competitive last season. Owens transferred to MacArthur and will play for the Generals this season. And though Owens’ elusive style is a better fit for MacArthur’s read option offense than Jennings’ power running style, the blocking will still have to be better than last year. If it is, Owens and quarterback Devan Ingram will run wild, leading to a big year. If not, it could be a repeat of last season (3-6).
Will perennial powers Tuscola and St. Teresa get back to the playoffs after uncharacteristically down seasons?
It won’t be easy for either. St. Teresa’s defense was decent last year and should be even better this year, but the Bulldogs need to find consistent points with a new offense that has Christian Williams moving from receiver to quarterback.
At some point, it was just assumed Tuscola would reload every year. It didn’t happen last year and things fell apart. This year’s senior class will have to re-establish what it means to be a Warrior, but a lot falls on the shoulders of a sophomore at quarterback in Nick Bates.
Will two area teams go undefeated and win state?
It’s possible. With Casey-Westfield’s enrollment dropping below 300 and Maroa-Forsyth’s up to 317, the Warriors will likely end up in 1A and the Trojans in 2A (though it will be close on both and nothing will be decided until the playoff field is announced). Both teams look like legitimate threats to go undefeated during the regular season, and both have what it takes to win state whether they’re in 1A or 2A. It won’t be easy — no area team has run the table since both Tuscola (Class 1A) and Maroa (2A) did it in 2006.
But even if there’s not an undefeated state champ, it’s a good bet an area team makes state. Since a four-year drought from 2002-05, at least one area team has been in a state title game the past seven seasons. In five of those years, including the past three, two area teams have played for the title.
If any teams do make state, they’ll be at a different venue. This is the first year in which Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium will play host to the state title games. It will alternate years with Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.
Will Meridian break its losing streak with a new coach?
And it’s not just any coach. It’s the coach with the most wins in the history of Macon County — Scott Davis. Davis has 232 career wins, but his 233rd won’t come easy. He’s taking over a team that has lost 30 straight games by an average of five touchdowns per contest, and has 18 straight defeats in the Okaw Valley Blue. The Hawks’ best chances for wins come in Week 4 at Clinton and Week 6 at Warrensburg-Latham.
Can Olney do it again?
The Tigers may have been the biggest shock of any area team last year. It was reasonable to think Olney could be improved with a move to a new conference, quarterback Justin Bailey in his senior year and a second season under coach Matt Music. But after winning a total of nine games the five previous seasons, few would have guessed the Tigers would win nine last year, including a first-round playoff game.
But with Bailey gone, there’s some doubt whether Olney can do it again. The Tigers do have four play-making receivers including Carson Waggoner, but whether or not they can be difference-makers will depend on first-year quarterback Nolan Shan.
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Will Mount Zion bounce back under its new coach?
A lot just fell wrong for Mount Zion last season. The Braves got off to a bad start and couldn’t pull themselves out fast enough to recover. During that start, they ran up against two teams in Highland and Jerseyville that came out of nowhere. Jerseyville put up its best season in more than a decade (11-1) and Highland bounced back from a winless season to make the playoffs.
This year’s team will have the pressure of learning a vastly different system with new coach Mike Popovich, but Mount Zion has a tradition of producing talent. With Austin Ray (2,780 yards rushing the previous two seasons) back at running back, the Braves are capable of winning enough games to return to the playoffs and maybe even earn a home game. And with uncertainty up and down the Apollo, Mount Zion could return to the top of the conference as well.
Can Cerro Gordo continue to be an offensive machine with an all-new line?
It often seemed that Steve Isbell was running around defenders and Dee Woods running over them on their own, but offensive lines don’t usually get noticed unless they’re allowing defenders to break through.
All five linemen from last year’s Cerro Gordo team that averaged 43 points per game are gone. The new group will be young and untested. The positive is Isbell doesn’t need much of a hole to slither through, and as long as they give Woods enough push to get a head of steam, he can do the rest. And while quarterback Cole Blickensderfer wasn’t asked to do much last year, he excelled when given the opportunity and could help take some of the focus off Isbell and Woods — and some pressure off the inexperienced line — with his speed and arm.
Will Argenta-Oreana take another step?
This year’s Bombers seniors have been fun to watch grow up. They went from promising sophomores who came a game from the playoffs in 2011 to Argenta’s first playoff team since 2006 last year.
But after a quick start last season, the Bombers sputtered in the second half. Injuries were a factor, but so was a porous defense that allowed 40 or more points three times in the last six games and had what could have been a signature win against eventual Class 3A runner-up Tolono Unity snatched away by a second half in which they couldn’t slow the Rockets’ running game.
This year, particularly with Tolono Unity off the schedule, Argenta could win seven or eight games in the regular season and win a playoff game for the first time since 2004 — if the Bombers can avoid the defensive letdowns that plagued them last year.
Will Pana return to being one of the elite teams in the South Central Conference?
After finishing second and tying for first in the first two years after the South Central Conference merged its two divisions to one conference, Pana fell to third in 2011 and fourth last year.
The South Central is annually the most unpredictable league in the area, and last year was particularly confusing. Pana beat Carlinville, which blew out Greenville, which blew out Pana.
There will likely be parity again, which means close games, and Pana’s experience should bode well in those games. Greenville, Carlinville and Staunton will all be in the mix, with Greenville the favorite as usual, but the speed in Pana’s running game and all-around talent on defense will make the Panthers formidable.
Will Maroa coach Josh Jostes run up the score against future Central Illinois Conference teams that won’t be on the Trojans’ schedule next year?
That was the big rumor last year and it remains this year, though it makes little sense. There’s no question Maroa will score a lot of points this year and play in some blowouts. But even if Jostes wanted to leave his starters in to make some kind of point, he likely won’t because his goal is to win another state title. Keeping his players fresh and healthy is going to trump revenge every time. And at this point, with a tolerable schedule in the Okaw Valley Conference going forward, it’s a good bet Jostes has gotten past any hard feelings — if there ever were any in the first place.