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Tuscola senior Will Little was injured in Week 1 and returned in Week 9 and is a key cog in the Warriors' playoff run.

TUSCOLA — There was a moment that Will Little felt like he could have attacked his doctor.

Little knew the doctor was a messenger, not a cause of back-to-back injuries that nearly derailed his entire senior season.

The broken ankle that Little, a senior linebacker and running back, sustained in a 57-0 win over Villa Grove-Heritage was neither the beginning, nor end of Little's path — he returned to the field in a 52-3 Week 9 win over Meridian.

April's injury at a basketball open gym on a Sunday was the beginning, and the end depends on how long the Warriors, who host Bismarck-Henning-Rossville-Alvin at 2 p.m. Saturday, go in the Class 2A playoffs.

He suffered an avulsion fracture in his right hip at the open gym. It ended his baseball season before the Warriors went on to claim third place in Class 1A and it caused Little to miss all of the football team's summer workouts.

“I’ve never had a broken bone before or been injured ever before this year," Little said. "It was kind of weird having a hip out of everything to happen."

He was cleared to return to football activities at the end of training camp in July and suited up for the season opener. But in the third quarter on a carry, his leg got pulled and someone landed on his ankle. He thought he had simply sprained his ankle and went back out to block on the point after attempt before telling coach Andy Romine he couldn't complete the game.

Little hopped around school all week, and desperately tried to convince himself and Romine that he could play in Week 2 against Arcola, but Romine knew better.

On the Saturday after the Arcola game, he went to the doctor and got the news that he fractured his right ankle.

“When I heard fracture I thought, ‘Yeah, season over. This is going to be terrible,'" Little said.

The initial diagnosis was four to five weeks, but a second visit gave a more stark realization that he would miss six or seven weeks. The time frame coincided with senior night in Week 9 and would assure him to be back for the postseason.

“Obviously at that point in the season we knew we were going to get an extra home game because of round one of the playoffs, but you never really know when your last time playing the game is, especially at your home field," Little said.

Romine hurt for Little. After all, Little was a kid who never took a play off, never missed a rep in the weight room — as important of a place to the Warriors as the field is — and always was in the right spot.

It was a run of bad luck that kept him off the field for a state baseball run and threatened his football season.

“You’re disappointed for a kid like him," Romine said. "Football means a lot to a lot of our kids and football means a whole lot to Will Little.

“It’s been one of the most important things in his life for a long time. On one hand, you go home and you’re just crushed because you feel like part of it is stolen from him. But on the coaching side of it, you’ve got to go try to pick up the pieces and rebuild it and, Will was fantastic from that standpoint, too."

The team came out stronger. Matthew Cantu filled in at the running back and had a breakout seaso,n and Gage Russell and Jake Kibler filled in at linebacker.

“I think the old adage, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ — our team is stronger now because it’s deeper and it’s better in practice," Romine said. "You still hurt that he had to miss some of it, but you like the fact that he’s got a chance to write the end of his story for this season and be a big part of it."

Little returned in Week 9, then turned in six tackles and four tackles for a loss in the first round of the playoffs against Villa Grove.

"He’s one of the main leaders of our team so having him out was a big difference, but when we got him back things got back into place," teammate Cade Kresin said.

In the weeks that Little wasn't wearing his No. 33 jersey on the field, he turned from player to coach. Little was the hustle coach. During practice he kept a keen eye on his teammates and spoke up if one of them were taking a play off.

It's a position that Little has earned during his four years at Tuscola, and a title to go along with it: Coach Little.

“He’s as respected of a kid — not an athlete — but as respected of a kid as there is in our high school," Romine said. "His personality, he’s very, very demanding of himself and he’s very, very hardworking.

"Players will listen because he's Will. He's the guy."

At first, calling Little "coach" was an adjustment for Kresin. But Little found a way to connect with Kresin and the team that coaches sometimes can't.

“He always coached us during practice and told us what to do," Kresin said. "He was hard on us and told us what to do and what we were doing wrong. He was always helping out and making sure we got in the right spots."

Little has spent plenty of time looking back and wondering if he could have done anything differently. What if he hadn't gone to that open gym?

“It was very frustrating to say the least," Little said. "It’s just a lot to go through your mind what you could have done differently, even if I didn’t go to that basketball open gym. It’s a lot to go through, but whatever happened, happened for a reason."

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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