State championship game expected to be run, run, run

RYAN KETTMAN bolts for a touchdown the first play for the Wildcats during their win over Maroa-Fosyth

Jim Sheldon

Possessions figure to be at a premium when fifth-seeded Wilmington (12-1) faces fourth-seeded Athens (11-2) in the Class 2A championship game Friday at 1 p.m. at Hancock Stadium in Normal. Both teams pride themselves on running the ball. "It's the state championship game. They are a very well-coached team and run a double-wing offense somewhat like ours but a little different," said head coach Jeff Reents. "All of their backs run very hard. They want to run the ball and do a good job of that." The Wildcats are making their fourth state championship appearance and are looking for their third title with wins in 2014 and 2021. Both times they completed undefeated seasons. Athens is a newcomer to the finals, but they have made the playoffs in 12 straight seasons, have won a school record 11 games and are coming off a 39-6 win over Shelbyville where they rushed for 538 yards. They finished tied for second in the Sangamo Conference behind Maroa-Forsyth who Wilmington dispatched in the semifinals. The Warriors lost to Maroa 28-21 and to Williamsville 36-35 during the season. They have rushed for 4,809 yards on 640 attempts (7.5 yards per carry) and the Wildcats have rushed 587 times for 4,499 yards (7.7 ypc). "Possessions are key along with field position and ball possession, all those things. Both teams want to do the same thing, force opponent into second/third and long so can you stop the run?" "Special teams and turnovers will be a big item, but it's going to come down to stopping the run." Like Wilmington, Athens' quarterfinal matchup was their toughest test as Nashville missed a 21 yard field goal as time expired and an extra point in a 28-27 Warrior win. They are led by the one-two punch of senior running back Camren Bigard (1,864 yards, 18 TDs) and senior fullback Cory Craig Jr (1,684 yards, 28 TDs). Bigard (5'6", 165) had a huge game against Shelbyville with 295 yards, including a 93 yard touchdown run. The Wildcats have a one-two punch of their own in junior Kyle Farrell (2,056 yards, 29 TDs) and sophomore Ryan Kettman (680 yards, 11 TDs). Farrell said even though they know little about Athens, he doubts anything will change when they play in Hancock Stadium on Friday. "Oh we're going to run the ball and right at them. We just beat our third undefeated opponent by doing that and we just believed in our offense and coach Barry Southall." "Every team we've played in the playoffs has been really good. We beat them mostly by running the ball. I really feel that this team is really tight. We believed in each other and that's what got us here." You don't rush for almost 4,500 yards without having a great offensive line and the Wildcats boast a stout one in left tackle Brody Benson (Sr, 6'4", 232), left guard Joe Allgood (Sr, 6'1", 230) center Andrew Dedo (Sr, 6', 195) right guard Zach Ohlund (So, 5'11, 225) and right tackle Logan Adermann (Sr, 6', 215). "We really set our season off that first loss against Seneca. We knew it was the first game of the year and there's going to be some mistakes. We really built off all those mistakes," said Ohlund. "Week 1 compared to now, our physicality is so drastically different. I personally think our confidence right now is the highest it's ever been. We bounced back in week two and have been rolling ever since. "Actually, going up against three undefeated teams and beating them has been a gamechanger for us. I feel like the team's closer and we know we can keep going. We've made it this far, there's only one thing more for us to do." Ohlund said there is only one way this season can be wrapped up and that's with a state championship trophy in hand. "All the work we put in...all the team bonding. Wednesdays we have cookouts. Tuesdays are Taco Tuesday, Thursday team dinner. We're always together every minute of the day. I really appreciate just this whole group together." "I started playing baseball with them when I was seven. Ever since then we've become closer together. Yeah, we've had our losses, but I believe we're destined to end this all with a victory." Wilmington obviously is a tremendous football program as evidenced by making the playoffs in 29 consecutive seasons, but this is just their fourth championship appearance. However, this is their second in three years and it shows just how strong this program is. "It's a tight knit group of kids and they are playing their best football right now and playing with confidence," said Reents. "We just want to continue the tradition, year after year, of trying to accomplish as much as we can." "It's been fortunate to have a lot of great kids and coaches come through and to be going back to state twice in three years is special. It's a great experience for the kids, the coaches and the community."