Today: The IHSA Class 2A state football championship game between the Mercer County Golden Eagles (13-0) and the Crusaders of Belleville Althoff (10-3) is this afternoon at 1 at Memorial Stadium on the University of Illinois in Champaign.|
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Radio & TV: The game will be carried locally by Aledo's WRMJ-FM 102.3 and will also be televised on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
Directions: From Aledo, take Illinois 17 over to I-74, then travel for nearly three hours to Champaign. Get off at the Neil Street exit and hang a right, which will take you south toward the campus. When you come to West Kirby Avenue, hang a left. Go a short distance and you will see Memorial Stadium on the left-hand side of the street.
State histories: While this is technically Mercer County's first trip to the state title game, the Golden Eagles are following in the tradition set by one of their predecessors, the Aledo Green Dragons. Aledo reached the state finals six times — five in 2A (1988, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2005) and once in 1A (2006), and won state titles in '98 (beating Rockridge 25-16 in the finals at Normal), 2001 and '02.
Althoff is in its fourth state championship game, the first for fifth-year coach Ken Turner. The Crusaders won the 4A state title in 1980, then took back-to-back 3A crowns in '89 and '90, besting Alleman — a 4A finalist tonight — 21-13 in their last title-game appearance before this afternoon.
Mercer County scouting report: Defensively, the Eagles have given up an even 100 points in 13 games behind the nucleus of junior linebacker Chris Neeld (31 solo tackles, 98 assists, 7 TFLs), senior tackle Landon McIntosh (18 solos, 93 assists, 8 TFLs) and senior linebacker Caleb King (18 solos, 88 assists, 6 TFLs); senior DBs Logan Snyder and Bryce Skiles and senior linebacker Zach Nelson each have three interceptions.
Offensively, senior quarterback and IFCA All-State pick Tanner Matlick has completed 114-of-183 passes (62.3 percent) for 1,884 yards and 21 touchdowns with just three interceptions; he has also rushed for 202 yards and 10 scores. Nelson leads the Eagle ground game with 917 yards and 14 TDs on 126 carries and has 1,150 total yards, followed by senior twins Jesse (674 yards, 7 TDs) and Logan Snyder (583 yards, 14 TDs). Matlick's top targets are senior Payton Holmes (37 catches, 562 yards, 10 TDs) and junior Tyson Nylin (29 catches, 545 yards, 6 TDs).
Althoff scouting report: Junior QB Eric Mertens is at the controls for the Crusaders, having completed 175-of-299 passes (58.5 percent) for 2,403 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he has been intercepted 16 times. His top target, both through the air and on the ground, is senior Garland Henley, who has 39 catches for 726 yards and 10 TDs to go with 385 rushing yards and 5 more scores. Another senior wideout, Nick Hawthorne, has 42 catches for 566 yards and 6 TDs, and the top rusher is junior Dennis Jackson (228 carries, 984 yards, 12 TDs).
Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel: "They're very big and quick in spots; their defensive backs, running backs and wide receiver are the fastest kids we've seen on the field all year. We're definitely up against it — I wouldn't be surprised if Althoff is picked to win. But I've told our guys that we're making something, and it's a process. We're at the end of that process, and have one more game to get."
Althoff coach Ken Turner: "Their quarterback is very good, a solid kid, and they've got some wide receivers who run disciplined routes. They're very disciplined in what they do, and on defense, you'll always see three or four guys flying to the ball. The formations they use and the way they throw the ball, they're a lot like us, to be honest with you."
-- By Terry Duckett, email@example.com
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