ALEDO -- Ten years have gone by since the last time a prep football team from Mercer County hoisted a state-championship trophy.|
It's been just as long since a team that calls George Pratt Memorial Field home ran the table for a 14-0 season.
Now, the Mercer County Golden Eagles have their chance to accomplish both feats after Saturday's 26-7 victory over Clifton Central in the Class 2A state semifinals on the Pratt turf. It will be Mercer County's first appearance in Champaign, and the first for any Aledo-based team since the 2006 Green Dragons took second in 1A.
"This is awesome,'' said Mercer County quarterback Tanner Matlick, "but you know, we'll be back to work on Monday. We'll be playing Mercer County Golden Eagle football at state -- that's all that matters.''
A decade ago, the 2002 Aledo team wrapped up a 14-0 season by besting Carthage 41-40 in a wild, overtime finish at Memorial Stadium. The Golden Eagles look to do the same Friday afternoon at 1 against Belleville Althoff (10-3), a 28-7 winner over a Central-Southeastern squad coached by former Westmer standout Brad Dixon.
"It's just a great feeling,'' said Matlick, who completed 14-of-23 passes for 211 yards. "Two years ago, we lost at Clifton Central (56-27) in the second round, so we had to redeem ourselves. We all remembered that game; we got our butts beat, which is a nice way to put it. Today, we came out with a chip on our shoulder. It was a total team effort.''
Matlick's classmate Zach Nelson, who led Mercer County on the ground with 59 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns, is happy to get a state football experience to go with the one he enjoyed last winter with the Eagles' Class 1A third-place wrestling squad.
"For all of the wrestlers on the team, our main focus is football,'' said Nelson, whose three-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter was followed by Matlick's five-yard TD run to stretch the Eagles' 13-7 halftime lead to a 19-point edge going into the fourth quarter. "We wanted to get to Champaign, and we've accomplished it.''
However, the Comets (11-2) showed they were just as intent on advancing. On its first possession, Clifton Central scored the game's opening points when quarterback J.R. Caspary hit Derrick Graham from 27 yards out on a fourth-and-10 play. Kolton Koch's PAT kick had Central up 7-0.
Any momentum the Comets gained by that opening salvo was quickly diminished when the Golden Eagles struck back quickly. After a short toss to Nelson turned into a 57-yard gain thanks to several key blocks along the way, Matlick hit Payton Holmes (7catches, 86 yards) from 14 yards out and Teryima Manta converted to make it a 7-7 game.
"We knew it'd be huge to have our passing game,'' said Holmes. "They'd shown weakness in their pass defense, and we wanted to exploit it and make the most of it.''
After holding Clifton to a three-and-out, Mercer County took the lead for good when Nelson (120 total yards) scored from two yards out to make it 13-7. A pair of defensive stands by the Eagles' defense then turned the tide for good.
Just before halftime, a Comet drive ended on fourth down at the hosts' 4-yard line when Caspary overthrew Graham in the end zone. Then on the first series of the third quarter, Central was stopped on downs at the Eagles' 30. Mercer County made that hurt with a 10-play, 70-yard drive capped by Nelson's second TD of the day.
"That was the biggest series of the game,'' said Nelson. "Getting a stop coming out to start the third, we knew if we capitalized on that, they'd be down, and it showed.''
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