When Marion hosts Cahokia tonight in each team’s South Seven Conference opener, it might be the game of the night in Southern Illinois.
That’s because you can almost always count on two things when these teams play: Lots of points and a dramatic finish.
“It’s funny, it always seem like it happens that way,” Wildcats coach Kerry Martin said. “We always have a close game against them.”
In the last five years, the total margin of victory between Marion and the Comanches has been 35 points. Throw out a 55-36 Wildcats win at Cahokia in 2015 and the average margin of victory falls from seven to four points.
Last season’s meeting is one of the most memorable games of Martin’s career, and not just because he recorded his 100th career win at Marion with a come-from-behind 35-32 decision. The Wildcats had to overcome a lot of obstacles.
“We had to reschedule that game from a Friday night because of a concern about civil unrest in St. Louis,” Martin said. “So we played it on Saturday, and it was a very hot day with 90-degree weather.
“We were down at halftime and we had no momentum. Then we drive like 90 yards and score to start the second half, and it turned everything around. To make a long story short, it was a gritty, tough win. We showed some toughness.”
Marion (2-1) will need to exhibit some toughness tonight. It’s coming off a 49-14 loss at Highland, which is ranked No. 4 in Class 5A, in which it put itself in the problem early with turnovers and then couldn’t finish off drives with touchdowns that might have allowed it back into contention.
Another performance like that will net a second straight loss. The Comanches (2-1) appear to have their best team under third-year coach John Clay, a former first-round pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987.
Cahokia blanked Civic Memorial 26-0 last week and routed Collinsville 54-22. Its only loss was 20-12 to Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, a team larded with Division I prospects.
The Comanches return quarterback Malik Shaw, who accounted for nearly 400 total yards of offense against the Wildcats last year.
“They’re really talented,” Martin said. “Every year, I feel like I say that, and it’s true. They have good speed and size, and they have some of the best-looking kids I’ve seen in our conference for sure.”
Making this game even more important is the fact that the South Seven is up for grabs this year. Traditional powers Belleville Althoff and Centralia each went 0-3 in the non-conference run-up to the league opener. Althoff allowed a whopping 159 points and Centralia managed to score only 21.
While Mount Vernon is much-improved over the team that went 0-9 each of the last two years, snapping a losing streak of 23 games last week at Triad, it’s still 1-2.
A win here could put Marion in pretty good shape to make a run for the conference title. After this game, it won’t face another team with a winning record until hosting Carbondale on Oct. 12.
“It is a very wide-open conference. There isn’t one team that stands out as a dominant team,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of parity and an opportunity for someone to stand up. If someone stands up, they might win the whole thing.
“No one wants to start 0-1 and then have to climb uphill, depend on other teams for help. So this is a big game.”