After three rounds of the IHSA football playoffs, there are just two Decatur-area teams left standing — Central Illinois Conference members Central A&M and St. Teresa.
Central A&M, in Class 1A, survived a tight game against Arcola, 20-19, while St. Teresa dominated for the 12th time this season in a 48-14 win against Breese Mater Dei to advance in Class 2A behind an unforgettable performance from Denim Cook. The other area team playing in quarterfinals, Pana was within striking distance of Nashville before a bad third quarter put the game out of reach for the Panthers.
This Saturday, Central A&M will host Carrollton at 3 p.m. in the 1A semifinals, while St. Teresa will travel to Nashville for a 1 p.m. game.
Here's a look back at last weekend's quarterfinals, as well as a look ahead to semifinals:
Denim Cook was having a monster season before one of the greatest performances from a Bulldogs player ever in a playoff game on Saturday.
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Against Mater Dei, Cook rushed for 310 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries. For the season, he's up to 2,257 yards and 34 touchdowns. He's rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of St. T's 12 games.
That performance has St. Teresa in the semifinals for the third straight playoffs and fourth time in coach Mark Ramsey's five seasons — a memorable birthday present for Cook's teammate, lineman Justice Chapman.
"The win was really the best birthday gift I could ask for," Chapman said.
Already a force to be reckoned with, Cook has extra motivation against Nashville — the Hornets derailed the Bulldogs' run to state in the 2019 semifinals.
"I remember that loss like it was yesterday. It brings trauma when I think about it but we are going to be ready," Cook said. "It is like a revenge game for us. We are going to be pumped up because we are going to their house and we are coming to take what is ours."
Nashville coach Stephen Kozuszek remembers Cook well from the 2019 matchup.
“I have not seen St. Teresa on film, but we know they are very talented," Kozuszek said. "We faced their running back — he is probably the best small school running back in the state — when he was a sophomore and he was a load then.”
The difference: One play
Both Arcola and Central A&M have had their share of battles this season, so it wasn't a shock when the second straight meeting between the teams in the Class 1A quarterfinals was a defensive struggle.
But on a key third-quarter fourth down with both offenses sputtering, Central A&M came up with what turned out to be the game-winner.
“It is one play, that is all this game came down to, one play,” said Central A&M coach Brent Weakly.
The key play came with A&M leading 14-6 late in the third quarter and facing a fourth-and-16 from Arcola's 40, with neither team having put any points on the board since the 7:59 mark of the second quarter.
It appeared A&M would punt, but instead, following a timeout, Drew Damery hooked up with Dalton Nichols for a touchdown and Jarrett Robertson booted his third extra point to make it 21-6 with 2:37 left in the third.
“We lined up to punt and we had too many people on the field so I called time-out,” said Weakly. “I just said we are going to gain 20 yards if he kicks it in the end zone so why not give it a shot and try and score. We were lucky enough to do so.”
Back in the semifinals
Central A&M (9-3) has been in the semifinals in consecutive years that the playoffs have been held. They're the fourth Raiders team to advance that far since 2000.
“We are just excited to follow in the footsteps of the 2019 team and hopefully we make it back to state and go to DeKalb,” said A&M's Brody Barnes, who 11 carries for 87 yards (including a 56-yard TD run) and also had four receptions for 25 yards.
Central A&M (9-3) — a No. 9 seed — has wins against the Nos. 8, 1 and 5 seeds so far in the playoffs.
"We have a lot of guys who can get the ball in their hands and do something with it," A&M's James Paradee said. "It is pretty cool. To be up there in the top four in the state right now is pretty cool.”
Despite the regular-season losses, Weakly said he knew this year's team could be something special.
“We have had this goal with these guys for awhile," Weakly said.
Bad start, great finish
For Arcola, it was a tough way to end what turned out to be the program's second nine-win season under head coach Nick Lindsey and fifth since 2008, which seemed unlikely after an 0-2 start.
“It was just after the first two games it was like, ‘It is not the start we wanted, but our program is not about week one and two,” Lindsey said. “It is about week eight and nine and on. This team showed that a lot. We got to the playoffs and played really well — two really good games and then, aside from a few plays here and there this week, I thought we played well.”
Arcola did have some memorable performances in the loss — Jed Jones hurt his ankle in Round 2 against West Central and hardly practiced in the week leading up, but bullied his way in from two yards out to help kickstart Arcola's late comeback attempt.
“We wanted to see how he felt on defense, more than offense and he played well and was able to gut it out,” said Lindsey of Jones. “That is the type of kid he is. He is going to do anything he can to win.”
Carrollton (11-1), despite being the higher seed, could've been considered an underdog against Athens — the Hawks play in the predominately Class 1A Western Illinois Valley Conference, while the Warriors are from the Sangamo, which features Class 2A-3A schools.
Also, Athens crushed Carrollton 55-29 in the 2019 quarters.
But this version of the Hawks proved to be much better defensively, holding an Athens team that had averaged 47.5 entering the game to 26 in a 28-26 win.
The Hawks are led by quarterback Grant Pohlman, who had 111 rushing yards on 25 carries against Athens, and running back Harley Angel, who had 13 carries for 146 yards in the quarters.
"They have a really good quarterback," Weakly said. "We got our hands full, The good news is we are right in our backyard and playing at our place is a lot different than going on the road. There is no question.”