Only Belleville Althoff stands between Eagles and realization of final goal

Originally Posted Online: Nov. 22, 2012, 8:23 pm
Last Updated: Nov. 22, 2012, 11:21 pm
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By Terry Duckett,

ALEDO — Just outside the Mercer County Golden Eagles' football locker room in Aledo is a piece of paper taped to the wall, listing the team's goals for the season.

Two of those — four or more shutouts (the Eagles have five) and becoming Lincoln Trail Conference champions (taken care of) — can be checked off. Only one remains on that list: win a state championship.

Only a 10-3 Belleville Althoff team stands between the undefeated Golden Eagles and the realization of that final goal as they square off this afternoon at 1 on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign for the IHSA's Class 2A state title.

There's no denying the tradition the Crusaders have, winning a Class 4A state crown in 1980 and back-to-back 3A titles in 1989 and 1990 (beating Alleman, a 4A finalist this year, in the '90 finals) and reaching the 5A semifinals in 2002.

However, Mercer County is the heir to Aledo's rich gridiron tradition that includes three state titles of its own and stands ready to take its rightful place among its predecessors.

"Any team that plays for a title is going to be good, and I know they're big up front, but the tenacity our offensive line has can combat that," said Eagles' senior quarterback Tanner Matlick. "They're just like us — high-school kids just like us. If we come out with that chip on our shoulder, we should be fine."

Classmate and running back/linebacker Zach Nelson, like many of his football teammates, was a key part of Mercer County's run to the state wrestling team duals last winter, where the Eagles took third in Class 1A. He hopes that experience can work to everyone's advantage today.

"We'll definitely use that experience of being in big situations like (state) and use it to our advantage," said Nelson. "There's a lot of us (playing today) — right now, there's only about three guys in our wrestling room, all freshmen. We know what we want, and our goal is to win state. We can't be content with just getting there."

Althoff coach Ken Turner, who took over from Crusaders' coaching legend Glenn Schott in 2008, acknowledges the traditions forged by both teams over the years but is equally quick to point out that the past is just that, and the present is now.

"Mercer County has so much history, and so do we, although theirs is a little more recent than ours," said Turner. "These are two big names around the state, but these are two different teams. It should be a good game."

Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel believes the road his team has traveled to get to today's gold medal showdown in Champaign has more than prepared them for anything the Crusaders may throw at his Golden Eagles as they try to achieve the final goal on their list.

"We've had a pretty tough road in the playoffs," said Zunkel. "We beat a two-time state champion in the first round (Morrison, 25-14), then in the second round, we beat a Rockford Lutheran team (42-14) that not a lot of people gave us a chance to beat. Then in the quarterfinals, we played an Amboy team that's bigger and more physical, and we beat them (33-21) on the road.

"Then there's Clifton Central (which fell 26-7 to the Eagles in last weekend's semifinals), who a lot of people picked to win the state title. But we're glad. We wouldn't have it any other way. I don't want anybody to look at our team and say we've had an easy road."

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