As a prep sports reporter, remaining neutral isn’t difficult, but what is difficult is not growing attached to the kids you spend hours-turned-days-turned-seasons-turned-years covering.
It’s what makes being present for the magical memories they make so cool, but it’s also what makes being present for the bittersweet endings harder than an AP Calculus exam.
I could feel the exuberance James “Dink” Stampley was surrounded in after his 68 yards on the final drive of the Kays’ 16-14 win against Mt. Vernon helped seal the deal of their first-round win. I could see it in his smile and hear it in his voice as he told me how excited he was for the opportunity to help his team win.
But as great as that feeling was, the sadness was just as equal less than 24 hours later in Collinsville, as I completed my final football interview with senior Neal May. I first met Neal “The Real Deal” May when he was a sophomore who coach Mike Kohl couldn’t stop telling me about.
He and Caleb Barclay were both sophomores Coach Kohl promised me then would help lead the Boilermakers back to the postseason before they graduated. Sure enough, with May and Barclay starring as wide receivers and defensive backs and other three-year starters such as defensive tackle Victor Rogers, that’s exactly where they were for the first time since 2016.
That postseason journey came to a soul-crushing end with a 14-12 loss at Collinsville that came down to the final seconds. And as I spoke with Neal afterward, I felt the same levels of emotions as I did with Stampley, but the elation was replaced with sorrow.
As I shook Neal’s hand and congratulated him on his career (that will continue athletically as he and his 4-by-100-meter and 4-by-200-meter relay teams look to return to state), I felt that lump in my throat come up that accompanies sadness, knowing it was the last time I’d spent a football moment with one of the most genuine kids our area has to offer.
That feeling isn’t limited to just football, nor is it limited to media members or coaches and their own teams. At last week’s IHSA Class 1A Watseka Regional championship, I was asking Cissna Park coach Josh Landon, fresh off the Timberwolves’ 2-1 victory, about how special the rivalry between the Timberwolves and Warriors is.
Two fierce-but-friendly Vermilion Valley Conference rivals, the two programs are very familiar with one another on a personal level. Landon began to get emotional as he told me about Watseka senior Elena Newell, a three-year starter who suffered a season-ending knee injury this year, and how he felt for her.
Sure, we’ll all remember who ends up raising state championship banners. But what we also will remember are the moments we share with the young adults who we watch grow up before our eyes.
Here are the area’s scores from the first week of the postseason:
(8)Collinsville 14, (25)Bradley-Bourbonnais 12 (Class 7A)
(6)Kankakee 16, (11)Mt. Vernon 14 (Class 5A)
(8)Coal City 22, (9)East Alton-Wood River (Class 4A)
(1)Princeton 56, (16)Peotone 28 (Class 3A)
(2)Reed-Custer 77, (15)Carver 24 (Class 3A)
(3)Wilmington 41, (14)Chicago Christian 7 (Class 2A)
(6)Tri-Valley 44, (11)Central 0 (Class 2A)
(11)Dakota 16, (6)Iroquois West 14 (Class 1A)
(4)Milford-Cissna Park 70, (13)Ashton Franklin Center 24 (I8FA)
Beginning their defense
Wilmington has been the epitome of consistency, as the Wildcats made it past the first round for the 21st time in their 26 straight postseason appearances with a running-clock victory last week, but the Wildcats know the path to defending their IHSA Class 2A State championship is just beginning.
Colin James has taken that next step, going from the 1B to Jacob Friddle’s 1A to this year’s 1A, leading all area 11-Man running backs with 1,366 rushing yards through the first week of the postseason. He has a great line blocking for him and great surrounding talent in fellow running back Kyle Farrell and quarterback Ryder Meents, which is why the ‘Cats have been able to average just more than five touchdowns per game this year.
Defensively, the 50-point outing at Reed-Custer in Week 6 obviously was not ideal, but they’ve tightened all the way up since then, allowing just 19 total points in their past four games. The defense was outstanding against Tri-Valley in last year’s 42-14 semifinal victory, and it will have to be stout once again against the Vikings in the second round this week after Tri-Valley put up 44 points against Central in the first round.
Survive and advance
Kankakee coach Derek Hart knew after the game his offense had some irons to wrinkle out, finding the endzone just once in the Kays’ first-round game against Mt. Vernon, but he was also thankful for a defense that scored a touchdown and safety — both courtesy of Naz Hill — to find themselves a seat at the second-round table.
They have reservations for 7 p.m. Friday at Peoria against a Lions team with no shortage of playmakers on both sides of the ball, providing the potential for one of the most enticing IHSA football matchups this week.
There are tremendous talents at every level of the Kays’ offense, where multi-year starters Karson King and Quan McElroy are joined by cornerback-turned-receiver Davi Jones at receiver and starter Demere Turner has the likes of three-star recruit Tony Phillips and Stampley, who are both red-hot in their own rights. Throw in Jyaire Hill to do a bit of everything as one of the nation’s top-ranked uncommitted recruits, as well as Larenz Walters at quarterback and a very sturdy line led by four-year starter Steven Young, and the pieces are definitely there to get back on track.
Can’t stop the Comets
Reed-Custer’s starting offense essentially was done with its day by the second quarter against Carver, but that starting unit already had scored seven times by then as the Comets rolled into the second round for the second straight year.
Not even the best of our area defenses have been able to keep the Comets’ powerful, creative offense at bay, a challenge a Durand-Pecatonica program that’s 28-10 since the start of the 2019-20 season now will face.
The Rivermen only have allowed more than 20 points once in their past seven games, but few, if any, teams in the state boast the firepower the Comets do. Reed-Custer coach Gavin Johnston and his team know the quarterfinal round either would lead to a meeting against Byron, the defending Class 3A champions that ousted the Comets in the quarters last year, or Seneca, an old rival from the Interstate Eight Conference.
Whichever meeting the Comets would end up facing in the quarters, they know they’ll have to stay just as hot as they have through the first 10 weeks to get there.