Head Coach: Aaron Hilgendorf (5th Season)
Career Record: 24-17
Conference: Sangamon Valley
Last Playoff: Class 2A Second Round, 2019
Best Playoff: Class 2A Second Round, 2019
2019 Record: 7-4
3/20 7 p.m. Momence (at Kankakee)
3/26 7 p.m. Walter Christian
4/2 7 p.m. @Seneca
4/10 1 p.m. @Iroquois West
4/16 7 p.m. Paxton-Buckley-Loda
4/23 7 p.m. @Central
Under Aaron Hilgendorf's tutelage, the Watseka football team has reached peaks it had never reached before. The Warriors' trip to the second round of the IHSA Class 2A Playoffs was the furthest they'd gone in 1986, which was also the last time they won a home playoff game. Their seven wins were tied for the most at Watseka in the last 25 years and the fourth-straight playoff appearance is the longest streak in school history.
Yet with all the history that came with last season's 7-4 campaign, Hilgendorf said the Warriors haven't grown complacent, still remembering the hurt that came after the season ended with a heartbreaking 20-14 loss to number-one Knoxville.
"It feels like forever ago but that still hurts us because we thought we had the chance to upset them," Hilgendorf said. "I remember how hungry they were and I've been anxious for it to come back."
Quarterback Drew Wittenborn led the area with 2,190 passing yards last season and so are the team's two leading receivers from last year in Conner Curry (775 yards) and Brayden Haines (456 yards). Hilgendorf said junior Hunter Meyer and sophomores Braiden Walwer and Anthony Shervino have made huge early strides and will be serviceable targets.
"We're able to move more guys around now and have some younger guys to add to our depth," Hilgendorf said. "We had a good fall with some contact days, and while we've only had a little time in the preseason, we've been able to grow and [our experience] has allowed us to go a little faster with installs."
Wittenborn will have ample time thanks to a nasty offensive line led by three-year starting center Shawn Farris and will feature five seniors across the board along with Tylor Durflinger, Ashton Bowling, Yeraldo DeLeon and Cal Cotter.
Hilgendorf said that even on a team that's loaded with two-and-three-year varsity players at almost every position group, it's the big boys up front who will continue to help the team grow.
"Any great team has offensive linemen as their leaders and that's important to us," Hilgendorf said. "Shawn is the leader of that group on both the offensive and defensive line, he's a smart player and he's in great shape."
Farris will lead a defensive front that will rotate several bodies, but the linebackers behind them figure to see every snap. Durflinger is one of the best returning linebackers in the state as a three-year starter and he has returning starter Maddux Rigsby next to him. The secondary is led by three-year starting cornerback Ethan LaBelle and Curry, a three-year starter at safety.
The Warriors have perhaps the most to play for out of any area team this season. Their teammate, Bryce Denoyer, was killed in a car accident last year just months after making a name for himself as a bruising running back and relentless defensive linemen on the football field. But it's who Denoyer was off the field that Hilgendorf and his players miss most.
"His name still comes up quite a bit and his jersey still hangs up in my office ...," Hilgendorf said. "We constantly have conversations about him and how we need to keep living for him, and to live life joyfully the way Bryce did.
"A day doesn't go by that he doesn't get talked about. He's a huge part of who we are."