Like most high school football coaches, Murphysboro’s Gary Carter prefers to play big games at home.
But if he feels a certain comfort level about taking the Red Devils to Effingham today for a Class 4A semifinal at 2 p.m., you can’t blame him.
After all, Murphysboro is 5-0 on the road this year. That includes a Week 9 blowout of previously unbeaten Du Quoin and a 20-14 victory in the first round of the playoffs against Bethalto Civic Memorial.
With 20 seniors on their roster, the Red Devils are as experienced a team as one can find in Week 13 of the season. And most of these seniors are playing their 31st high school game, so there is a been there, done that quality to this club.
“I’ve always heard that if you have that kind of experience as a coach, you know you can win,” Carter said before practice Thursday. “I’ve never had that as a coach. These guys just keep fighting, keep playing. If something good happens, it doesn’t mean the game’s over. If something bad happens, you keep playing.”
Murphysboro (10-2) lived up to those words last week in a dramatic 35-27 quarterfinal home win over Kankakee Bishop McNamara. The Red Devils took a 14-0 lead before their defense saw the field, gave up the lead, established a 27-14 advantage, coughed that up and then drove the length of the field to score the winning touchdown in the final minute.
It’s the type of game you don’t win at this stage of the season unless you mix in a whole lot of will to go with your skill.
You have free articles remaining.
“We just hung in there, we were persistent and our kids had some things not go our way,” Carter said, “but they kept battling and coming back for more. It paid off for us.”
To play for a state title, Murphysboro needs to do two things well — play a clean game and keep the ball in front of it. The Red Devils have had trouble at times with fumbles, and this would not be the week to leave a couple of footballs on the turf.
The Flaming Hearts (11-1) are good enough without the help. Led by all-state quarterback Nate Shackelford and wide receiver Tristin Duncan, they are averaging nearly 40 points per game. Shackelford has thrown for around 2,400 yards and rushed for about 700, while Duncan has more than 1,200 yards and 12 touchdown catches.
Effingham can run different types of offenses, playing power ball at times or running the spread when necessary. It also has three tight ends that might remind some of Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford from about 10 years ago.
“All similar-type kids, and they can all play,” Carter said. “They’re all big, and they get after it and play hard. They have some really good kids, and they are well-coached. We have to keep them contained and execute on offense.”
Murphysboro will attack the Flaming Hearts with its Wing-T set, led by halfbacks Dezmond Clark and Jake Hoppenstedt. Clark is the leading rusher, but Hoppenstedt was the No. 1 star last week, running for 85 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown.
Fullbacks Zane Caraway, Kevin Kirkwood and Aiden McNitt have combined for nearly 1,100 yards, and quarterback Jamarr McZeke is capable of making game-breaking plays with his arm or feet. The Red Devils’ offensive line has grown into a strength after struggling in a Week 1 loss to Carbondale.
This is Murphysboro’s first time in a state semifinal since 1988. This is Effingham’s first-ever appearance in a state semifinal. Sometime late this afternoon, one of these teams will clinch their first trip to a state championship game.
“That would mean the world to us,” Caraway said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I started playing football. Most of us started playing in fourth grade. We’ve always talked about it and dreamed about it. It’s crazy that it’s about to become reality.”