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2022 season preview: Scouting the Vermilion Valley North Division

Clifton Central

2021 record: 6-4

Coach: Brian Spooner

Worth noting: The Comets were inexperienced with only four seniors and two returning starters back when last season began but found a way to make the postseason. This fall’s team returns a solid number of key players, including senior QB Luke Shoven, who passed for 1,235 yards and 15 TDs. Shoven again will be looking for senior targets Tristan Schmidt (21 receptions, 354 yards, 7 TDs) and Mathew Luhrsen (23-270-2), as well as newcomers in senior Jared Saathoff (WR/DB) and juniors Maddox Miner (WR/DB) and Gavin McKee (WR/DB). On defense, Clifton Central will be led by three seniors in DT Damian Bailey (11 solo tackles, two sacks), as well as LB Jayce Meier (28 solos 21 assists, three tackles for loss) and LB Evan Redwing (39 solos and 31 assists, three tackles for loss). “Experience gained from last year should help our team start quicker than we did last year,” said Spooner, whose teams have made the playoffs 20 of the past 23 seasons. “Last year we only had one or two returning starters, and our players had to learn quick what they needed to do to be successful, and they did a good job of that and have worked hard all summer preparing for the upcoming season.”

Dwight

2021 record: 1-8

Coach: Luke Standiford

Worth noting: The Trojans had to forfeit Weeks 2 and 3 last season because of COVID-19 issues, and their lone victory came via a forfeit from Watseka, which cut its season short because of low participation numbers. Standiford, who enters his fifth season as head coach, returns key players in senior RB/LB Austin Burkhardt (SR,RB/LB), who has been a two-way starter the past two seasons and led the team in tackles, receiving yards and rushing yards last year, as well as dual-threat junior QB/DB Connor Telford, who Standiford said “did a lot of good things for us, and we want the ball in his hands as much as possible.” Dwight also will be looking for strong play from senior newcomers Michael Gamble (OL/DL), Thomas Dochterman (TE/DE), Dawson Carr (WR/DB) and Parker Miner (G/DT). “We have some good skill-position players that have the ability to make big plays,” Standiford said. “We also have some solid O-line players that I believe can help generate those kinds of plays. Our numbers are low this year, so our main focus right now is making sure these kids are in great shape going into Week 1 because there are a lot of kids who will need to play both sides of the ball.”

Iroquois West

2021 record: 8-3

Coach: Jason Thiele

Worth noting: Iroquois West made a trip to the second round of the 1A playoffs last fall, marking the program’s first trip to the postseason since 2006. This fall it will be looking to make the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since three appearances from 2001-03 that culminated with a Class 2A state championship in 2003. Thiele enters his third season as the Raiders’ coach with plenty of talent back, including four all-conference selections in seniors Cannon Leonard (OL/DL, University of Iowa commit), John Ahlden (FB/ LB), Trystyn Schacht (RB/LB, honorable mention all-state) and Damian Melgoza (K/LB), as well as junior Jace Pankey (OL/ DL, three-year starter) and senior Sam McMIllian (QB/DB, two-year starter), while junior Izayah Hargett (QB/LB) is listed as a key newcomer to the group. “Our top guys are all definitely two-way players that are key to us at their positions,” Thiele said. “Our run game and run defense will be our strongest areas. We are returning almost everyone from [last season], and that will be big for us to pick up where we left off in the playoffs. Our pass defense has always been something we have been working toward making better. We feel this year we will have most of the holes filled in.”

Momence

2021 record: 6-4

Coach: Wayne Walker

Worth noting: Momence finished 4-1 in league play to capture the championship and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2016 but fell in the first round to Tremont. For the season, Momence outscored its opponents 223-212, and posted 2,576 total yards, including 1,496 on the ground.

Seneca

2021 record: 4-5

Coach: Terry Maxwell

Worth noting: The Fighting Irish won three of their final four games last fall, and three of their five losses on the season were by a combined 23 points. A young group last season with three starters back, Seneca comes into this fall returning nine starters on defense and eight on offense with several others holding competitive varsity experience. The Irish will be counting on key players in seniors Collin Wright (RB/LB, special mention all-conference, 737 yards rushing, six TDs, 55 tackles, 8.5 for loss), Braden Ellis (RB, 556 yards, 4 TDs), Aiden Wood (RT), Brady Barla (C, pancake block leader), as well as juniors Nathan Grant (QB/S, two-year starter, 11 rushing TDs and three passing TDs, INT leader), Matt Dillon (RG), Asher Hamby (S, 77 total tackles, special mention all-conference) and Josh Lucas (DL, 6-3, 270, started first five games before ankle injury). “Experience is a strength for our team this year,” Maxwell said. “I think a group that has been through some good battles and will benefit this year in understanding the speed of the game and the physicality of varsity football. This is one of the physically strongest groups we’ve had in recent memory. Our buy-in to the offseason workouts have led to a lot of players reaching great numbers in the weight room. I’m hoping to see that transfer to good physical play on the field and also see a group that swarms to the ball.”

Watseka

2021 record: 1-6

Coach: Max Franzen

Worth noting: Watseka struggled with low numbers in the program last season, losing its two on-the-field games, while also having to forfeit five games before cutting the season short. Franzen has taken over the program and will have returning starters in seniors Brady Walwer (QB/S) and Dom Thomas (OL/OLB), as well as junior Evan LaBelle (RB/LB) to build around. The new coach also notes that senior Anthony Shervino (RB/OLB), junior Clay Smith (OL/DL) and sophomore Vinci Lane (FB/CB) have taken huge steps forward in the offseason. Franzen feels a strength of his team will be experience at the skill positions but they will need to develop depth on both the offensive and defensive lines.

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • Luke Shoven, Clifton Central, sr., QB/DB: Shoven returns as quarterback after passing for 1,235 yards and 15 TDs and helping the Comets reach the playoffs for the 20th time in the past 23 seasons.
  • Cannon Leonard, Iroquois West, sr., OL/DL: A University of Iowa commit, Leonard will be the anchor on both sides of the line for the Warriors. He recorded 36 total tackles last fall with a sack and fumble recovery.
  • Trystyn Schacht, Iroquois West, sr., RB/LB: Schacht rushed 221 times for 1,855 yards and 21 TDs last season, including 305 yards on 30 tries and a trio of scores in the Warriors’ first playoff game since 2006 in a victory over Monmouth United.
  • Collin Wright, Seneca, sr., RB/LB: Wright will be one of many returning starters the Irish hope can lead them to a first playoff berth since 2019. He was a special mention all-conference pick last fall after rushing for 737 yards on offense and recording 55 stops on defense.
  • Braden Ellis, Seneca, sr., RB: Ellis was and will again be a big part of the Irish’s Power-T offensive attack. He ran for 556 yards and four TDs last fall with a 8.4 yards per carry average.

SCHEDULE

FIVE CAN’T-MISS MATCHUPS

Week 5 – Seneca at Iroquois West: Last season the Fighting Irish led the game, 14-13, at halftime only to see the Warriors storm back for a 12-point win. With both teams liking the ground game, look for a grind-it-out battle.

Week 6 – Iroquois West at Momence: In what proved to be the deciding game for the league title last fall, Momence exploded for a 46-20 victory. Both teams eventually claimed playoff berths in 2021, so look for this one to be a little tighter this season.

Week 7 – Momence at Seneca: The two squads played an exciting back-and-forth contest last season with host Momence grabbing a 32-26 win. It looks like this year’s tilt may be another tight game.

Week 7 – Iroquois West at Clifton Central: In a defensive battle last season, the host Warriors earned a 13-6 triumph over the Comets. Both squads return many players from that game, so look for another feisty game as each team will be expected to be looking to secure playoff berths.

Week 9 – Clifton Central at Momence: The Comets gave Momence its only league loss of last season, 32-8, in the final regular-season game for both. It also may be a last chance for each to claim its final victory to qualify for the postseason.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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