MARION — It will be a familiar bus trip for the Marion football team today when the Wildcats head to Olympia Fields for their first-round Class 5A playoff game. The Wildcats (6-3) are seeded ninth in the south bracket, while Rich Central (7-2) is seeded eighth.
It was just last year when Marion made a similar trip to Morris for a first-round playoff game.
"I think we've grown accustomed to trips like this," said Marion head coach Kerry Martin. "I don't think our kids are affected by it in any way. Usually every year we have one or two of these type trips. It's just become what we do."
While Martin and the Wildcats have had plenty of experience in long road trips, what nobody seems to know much about is the first-round opponent. The Olympians finished second in the Southland Conference to Crete-Monee, a Class 6A playoff team. Rich Central lost to Crete-Monee and also lost a non-conference game to Chicago St. Rita.
"The main thing was being able to watch film and the things we picked up on film," Martin said. "But it was hard to get some of the normal statistical information about them."
What the Wildcats do know is that the Olympians have a special player in senior quarterback Jyran Mitchell. Mitchell has committed to Northern Illinois University as a wide receiver for college, but is one of the top runners as well as the quarterback for this year's Olympians. Martin says he comes in somewhere between former Cahokia quarterback Patrick Ivy and current Centralia quarterback Javon Williams Junior as far as player's he has coached against.
"The quarterback is a special player throwing and running," Martin said. "He can really do a lot of things and I think a lot of their success hinges on him."
Martin says Mitchell is maybe not as strong but maybe a half-step quicker than Williams.
"To me he is maybe faster but not as physical," Martin said. "I think there are some similarities in the way we have to defend them. Because we've seen some scrambling and running quarterbacks, we kind of have a game plan in place to at least contain or neutralize that kind of offense."
Martin expects a shootout, with lots of points put on the board. And he should feel good that his team will do some of the scoring. Marion comes into the game averaging 40.3 points per game, and has scored 40 or more points in four of its nine games and put up 56 twice. In fact, the Wildcats have scored at least 21 points in all nine of their games, the season low coming in a 35-21 loss to the south's top seed in Dunlap in a 35-21 week two loss.
The Wildcats are led by three standout seniors on offense, quarterback David Fletcher (99-for-172, 1,569 yards, 18 TDs 7 INTs), running back Caden Hilliard (113 rushes for 869 yards and 10 TDs in seven games) and Jaden Lacy is a receiver (38 catches for 901 yards and 15 touchdowns) and a runner (28 carries for 272 yards and eight touchdowns). Lacy has also scored on interceptions (2 TDs) and special teams (1 punt return).
The Wildcats have developed some other players during the season however in the likes of wide-receiver Dylan Kinell (24 catches for 304 yards) and running backs Rico Williams (37 carries for 166 yards) and Clayton Bastien (32 carries for 109 yards). Drake Gravatt has 94 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Marion's offense has been known as a quick-strike offense, with eight passing plays and six running plays of more than 40 yards. However, Martin says he's like to maybe control the ball a little more.
"We were talking the other day about how you used to see 7-, 8-, 9-minute drives," Martin said. "Now it's a rafe thing, but when it happens, it takes it's toll [on the opponent]. You can wear the defense down, give your defense a break and maybe take them out of rhythm a little bit offensively. It can be a weapon."
Today's kickoff is at 2 p.m. The winner plays against either Dunlap or Streator in the second round.