Johnston City hosts Fairfield for football opener

Johnston City's Cory Norris attempts to block Fairfield defender Wyatt Gilbert (22) in the 2017 season.

Fairfield gets its opponent’s best shot every week. Ranked seventh in Class 3A, the Mules haven’t lost a Black Diamond Conference contest since 2016, a streak that stretches across 22 games.

Wyatt Gilbert has been on hand for just about all those games, and he’s seen first-hand why the program has carved out its spot atop the conference.

“Coach (Justin Townsend) always talks to us about how we have a target on our back,” Gilbert said Wednesday night. “We embrace it. We know we have to put in the extra work to be successful.”

Gilbert will lead Fairfield (2-0, 2-0) into a big game Friday night at Chester (1-1, 1-1), which is coming off a 38-14 loss at Eldorado and is pretty eager to prove it’s better than that performance. But the Yellow Jackets will have to deal with a new, improved version of Gilbert.

Not that the old version was inferior by any means. A two-way starter at running back and cornerback, Gilbert entered his senior season as a two-time All-BDC pick. He rushed for 628 yards last year in the Mules’ balanced attack, averaging nearly eight yards per carry.

But this iteration of Gilbert is more dangerous – and getting more touches. He averaged nine carries per game last year. He’s getting 14 per game this year, and it’s paid off in 272 yards and five TDs in shutout wins over Sesser-Valier-Waltonville and Johnston City.

Townsend said that Gilbert reported for preseason camp last month stronger, particularly in the lower body. While the 5-11, 175-pound Gilbert might not remind one of last year’s leading rusher, burly fullback Dylan Heifner, he’s still running with more power than ever.

“The biggest thing he’s improved on has been lower-body strength,” Townsend said of Gilbert. “You know, he goes in a lot of different directions during the summer. He plays travel baseball, he plays for the basketball team, he’s a three-sport athlete.

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“He’s always had the speed and the quickness, but I think the strength is the biggest thing. His endurance is better this year.”

Gilbert likes the increased workload, but likes winning games even more. To that end, he feels like Fairfield might be better equipped for a long postseason run than it has been, largely because it finally tasted some playoff success last year.

The Mules’ 34-28 overtime win over Newton in the Class 3A first round was just their second victory in 13 postseason games under Townsend. A second round defeat to Williamsville has only whetted their appetite for more November wins, according to Gilbert.

“Our goal is to get there and get further,” he said of this team. “We’re happy, but not satisfied.”

The quiet yet effective leadership of Gilbert is one component that will help Fairfield achieve its goals, according to Townsend. Much like St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who will talk up a teammate until he’s blue in the face but prefers not to talk about himself, Gilbert leads with others in mind.

And this isn’t always on the field or in the locker room. After rushing for 170 yards and four touchdowns last week against Johnston City, Gilbert was back at the Train Yard, the Mules’ home field, the next day.

Not to get in a workout, mind you, but to serve as public address announcer for the town’s junior football league that his parents helped found 11 years ago.

“They got the league going when I was in first grade,” Gilbert said. “I remember that all the high school kids would help out with that. Now I help out because I want to set a good example for the younger kids.”

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