Since last October, or in some cases, last November, high school football teams in Southern Illinois have looked forward to mid-August.
With practice beginning on Monday, they have about 2 ½ weeks to prepare for their opening game and fall into the rhythm of their nine-week schedule. Some schools have better chances than others to reach the playoffs in November. But all of them start 0-0.
That being said, there are games which hold more allure than others. Some are long-time rivalries in which legacies and careers are made. Others are rematches of exciting matchups from last year, and there’s a few where something new gets a first look under the Friday night (or Saturday afternoon) microscope.
Call this the Fine 15, the games one should most circle on the 2019 calendar.
Carbondale at Murphysboro
The Jackson County rivals each went 8-3 and won first round playoff games last year, the best season each has had in some time. This is the first opportunity to see what either one does for an encore. The Terriers have to find a replacement for brilliant quarterback Jakeba Burleigh, and the Red Devils are hoping a mostly new line can create holes for one of the area’s most talented stable of running backs.
Sesser-Valier at Fairfield
An instant rematch of the Black Diamond’s regular season championship game last year, when the Mules pulled away in the second half at S-V to polish off another 9-0 season. The Red Devils will play their first game under co-coaches John Shadowens and Mike Rude. Can the football minds meld to produce what would be an immediate signature win at the Train Yard?
Anna-Jonesboro at West Frankfort
The teams played twice last year, with the Redbirds scoring victory in the season opener at A-J and the Wildcats exacting revenge in the playoffs with a 56-28 decision. While West Frankfort returns star quarterback Connor Eaton, A-J returns exactly no starters. Brett Detering is one of the best coaches around here, but he might even be hard-pressed to produce early success with an entirely new lineup.
Carmi-White County at Vienna-Goreville (Saturday)
The Eagles’ home field, which sits a long bomb off I-24, often resembles an open-air cooker in the early season. New coach Nic Bocook is trying to do what Rude couldn’t in his second stint – create a consistent winner under trying circumstances. Going up against Kurt Simon’s Bulldogs in your debut may not be the optimum opponent for V-G, but there should be no shortage of enthusiasm in Johnson County.
Herrin at Carterville
The Williamson County rivals last year produced one of the season’s wildest games – a 49-35 Tigers win that featured 631 rushing yards, including 329 from Jackson Yates. It will be the first home game for new Lions coach Brett Diel, who like some other SIRR Mississippi teams has to craft a new team out of inexperienced parts. Carterville returns two starters on each side of the ball – both two-way players.
Herrin at Du Quoin
After consecutive road games with Massac County and Harrisburg to open the season, the Indians play their first home game under new coach Derek Beard. The Du Quoin alum and athletic director is only the school’s fourth coach since 1968. In last year’s matchup, Indians quarterback Josh Heape scrambled for the winning touchdown in overtime just before 11 p.m., capping a 31-25 win that saw the teams endure a 70-minute delay after regulation.
Marion at Cahokia
One thing you can count on is the Wildcats and Comanches opening the South Seven season with a close game. That was the case last year in Marion, when the game came down to the final play before a pick-six by Cahokia sealed its 24-14 win. That was the closest anyone in the conference came to beating the Comanches as they sailed to the conference title and then reached the third round in Class 5A.
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Murphysboro at Herrin
The teams ran up and down the field at will last year in Murphysboro, with the Tigers coming out on top 37-35 as they came up with a rare defensive stand in the last minute. The SIRR Ohio rivals combined for 830 total yards, the Red Devils losing despite gaining 365 yards on the ground. As was the case last year, the winner figures to gain a critical edge in the SIRR Ohio race.
Benton at West Frankfort (Saturday)
Usually, the records don’t mean a thing in the Franklin County Super Bowl. It’s always a special atmosphere for a noon kickoff, with cars and tailgates ringing the field wherever this one is played. Last year, the Redbirds made the short trip up Rt. 37 to Tabor Field and splashed their way to a 41-8 win, snapping a three-game losing streak to the Rangers. Benton leads the series 52-48-2.
West Frankfort at Murphysboro
This is a rematch of a SIRR Ohio game last year in West Frankfort which saw the Redbirds open up a 28-6 lead after one quarter … and lose. The Red Devils stormed from behind for a 42-41 victory, rushing for 398 yards and handing West Frankfort its first loss after five straight wins. Jake Hoppenstedt and Dezmond Clark combined for 280 rushing yards for Murphysboro, and they’re both back in 2019.
Du Quoin at Anna-Jonesboro
This game may have changed two seasons last year. The Indians led 28-14 and 35-21 in the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats stormed from behind and won 36-35 when they converted a 2-point conversion after a Du Quoin penalty during the try for a game-tying PAT. By this time, we’ll have an idea of if A-J’s brand-new lineup has taken enough shape to take the measure of a strong program like the Indians'.
Marion at Carbondale
The Highway 13 rivals meet in their final South Seven game, with playoff positioning likely at stake for one if not both teams. Last year, the Wildcats pulled out a 14-7 win on a rainy, cold night, cinching it when the Terriers jumped offsides before a 4th and 5 punt with just over a minute remaining. Carbondale has to be itching for revenge as Marion has controlled the series in recent years.
Nashville at Du Quoin
The SIRR Mississippi title could be at stake at Van Metre Field. Last year, the Hornets validated a great regular season by breaking a fourth quarter tie with a touchdown run and safety to salt away a 29-20 win, enabling them to finish 8-1 and earn a Class 2A home game. Some of the top playmakers in the area figure to take turns coming up with big plays in this one, such as the Indians’ Dasani Edward and Nashville’s Jullian Metcalf.
Fairfield at Eldorado
If the past is any guide, the Mules will be playing for a perfect record in a closed conference. The Eagles are usually one of their toughest opponents, and the atmosphere at Boz Adams Field usually inspires the home team an extra level. Eldorado may also have the extra incentive of perhaps clinching a first round home game in the playoffs with a victory here.
Murphysboro at Du Quoin
Playoff positioning figures to be a common denominator in this one as well. The Red Devils used a 49-6 walloping of the Indians last year to seal a first round home game in the 4A playoffs, while Du Quoin got sent on the road as a result and were blown out in a 3A first round game by Williamsville. On their senior night, the Indians will look to exact some revenge.