CARTERVILLE — Ben Haake planted his feet about two yards into the end zone, just inside the left front pylon, and eyed the football as it began its descent.
A smaller defensive back had position on Haake to pick the underthrown pass, but Haake had longer arms and soft hands. Haake used his length to perfection, almost plucking the ball off the defender’s helmet for a touchdown.
Moments later, coach Brett Diel whistled his Carterville team to midfield, signaling the 7-on-7 scrimmage to a conclusion.
“Nice way to end the night, huh?,” Diel said of the final play.
The Lions, like many football teams in Southern Illinois who aren’t able to play this fall due to COVID-19 concerns, have taken advantage of 20 contact days allotted to them by the IHSA over the last month.
Unlike most, Carterville has used a couple of them for public 7-on-7 scrimmages, throwing open the gates to Lions Field and letting fans in. On a cool Friday night that would have been Week 6 of the season in any other year, a gathering in the low three figures spaced themselves out in the metal bleachers and enjoyed the action.
The players would have worn full pads on any other fall night but instead donned jerseys, shorts and helmets enjoyed it, too.
“It feels good to get back out here and play as a team,” senior running back Preston Sumner said. “It’s not really like an actual game, but it feels good. When I woke up this morning, it felt like an actual game.
“Some people aren’t even doing this. They’re just at home, not even doing anything. Coming out here with the team is pretty good.”
While states around Illinois are playing a season with plans to crown state champions in December, the IHSA remains resolute with its goal of playing football in the spring. Preseason practice is scheduled to start February 15, with the first game set for March 5 or 6.
Given that timeline, the last month has been important for most football teams in the state. Diel has compared it to spring football at most colleges.
“This is completely new and we’re trying to capitalize on it,” he said. “We’ve never had this before. There’s some good to this and there are some challenges. We only graduated six seniors, and we brought in a freshman class that is very deep.
“That gave us a good opportunity to look at a lot of kids over the last month. With the spring season, they’re going to get an extra six months to develop.”
The Lions went 3-6 last year, Diel’s first season on the job after replacing successful long-time coach Dennis Drust. But they were a much better team in the season’s second half, nearly upsetting Class 2A finalist Nashville and notching consecutive SIRR Mississippi wins over Sparta and Pinckneyville.
With senior quarterback Eli Downen, Sumner and a host of capable receivers on hand, Carterville could have one of the area’s best offenses.
“Hopefully, we can make the playoffs,” Sumner said. “We haven’t had that kind of atmosphere in Carterville for a while, so we hope we can bring it back. We want that playoff feeling back in Carterville.
“We were kind of young last year, but we have a lot more seniors this year. We have some fast kids out there, and if we get all the pieces out there, we could be pretty good.”
How good the Lions are remains to be seen, and there’s no guarantees anyone will be playing football by March. But they were playing football on Friday night, even if it was the 7-on-7 version, and people were bundled up to watch it.
Their coach noticed.
“It’s not just the kids that are dying to do something,” Diel said. “It’s the parents, it’s the students. Heck, we even had a student section here tonight. Everybody wants to get back to some remnants of normal.”
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!