2011 CHS players ring the bell at Trojan Hill. (photo/Steve Staskiewicz)

By Kyle Daubs

F is for football, but also for family 

When most ask Ethan Miller for the most important element of the 2011 Charleston High School football team, he says most people recall a school-record for wins with an 11-2 season and a Final Four Appearance.

“We were such a big family,” said Miller, saying that former athletic trainer Jen Staskiewicz was the team’s mom. “We hung out together all the time. We had each other’s backs and we always knew we could count on one another.”

Charleston entered the season coming off three straight underachieving seasons. In 2008, the team was poised to win the Apollo Conference, but finished 4-5. Losses to Robinson and Salem in 2009 meant another sub-.500 season the next year, and a 5-4 record wasn’t enough for postseason in 2010. 

That was all going to change, they believed, after a grueling offseason program. 

“When we first moved into Charleston, I just remember my brother Keithan told me it was important to know who was on our team,” said Cazley, who moved down to Charleston with his brother Josh while Keithan played football at EIU. “We had some really talented pieces, but we were missing the work ethic. After our sophomore year, we had an amazing summer. I just remember we were on the field non-stop. Guys like Ethan and Noah Miller, Sean, Truston and me were all just a tight group who never left the field.”

2011 was different. Head coach Brian Halsey knew this was crunch time for him. “The pressure is on me,” he told JG-TC sports-editor Brian Nielsen’s football preview. 

Halsey decided to not call all plays and lured former defensive coordinator Tim Hogan who had been on his staff in the early parts of a rebuilding CHS football program that went from two wins in two seasons to three-time Apollo Conference champions.  According to Nielsen, Hogan said: “I had other offers, but it wasn’t a fit. I really missed it, and I’m glad to be back.”

Hogan had plenty of talent. Senior Chris Creek, anchoring the defense, was poised to break John Best’s 322 career tackles mark that season, having already broken the single-season mark as a sophomore. He was joined by returning starters Matt Wolfe and Stephen Majors. 

The defense took a new look with new cornerbacks Truston Winnett and James Hudson, safety Dillian Cazley, and Ryan Preston and Jesse Campbell looking to start somewhere in the middle at linebacker. 

“It was great mainly because it was so much fun and completely unexpected,” said Wolfe. “We weren’t all that great the year prior, so nobody expected this. It was kind of like a dream once we started getting the success. We had busted our ass all year and grew into something special. It was really exciting seeing the town get all juiced up.”

On offense, the Trojans were without leading running back L.J. Welsh for the beginning of the season due to injury but they had a seasoned quarterback in Sean Hussey along with veteran receivers in Tibet Spencer and Aaron Bence, along with a new addition in the 6-foot-7 T.J. Bell. Noah Miller was a powerful fullback, while Josh Cazley became an eventual star.

After much hype, the season began with a road game at Rantoul. The Trojans and the Eagles combined for 112 points in CHS’s 68-44 victory. Sophomore Josh Cazley rushed for 164 yards in his varsity debut. 

“People don’t remember that Rantoul had athletes,” said Dillian. “I’ve never understood why they can’t ever put it together. We got ripped that week at practice for giving up 48 points.”

Rantoul’s Terry Deaville wound up throwing six touchdown passes, but junior Noah Miller rushed for four, Dillian Cazley added a 93-yard kickoff return and kicker Dalton Runyon broke Tom Jenkins’ record for most PATs in a game by making eight.

“I remember the kickoff hit me right in the chest, and I dropped it. Then, I picked it up and saw green grass,” said Cazley. ““I always told myself there was not a single player that was faster than me on the field. It really got under my skin when people told me Josh was faster than me. I’d say you are out of your damn mind.”

LJ Welsh breaks a tackle. (photo/Steve Staskiewicz)

The Flaming Hearts were next on the list with plenty of bad blood to go around. These teams were in a near brawl after a late hit had cost Welsh his final game the season before.

“I hated Effingham,” Creek said. “When that happened with LJ, they were stomping us pretty bad. It was a cheap shot and completely uncalled for. I also remember we beat their 7-on-7 team like 50-14 in the summer. Leading up to the game, their coach made some comment that they don’t want to lose to no tiddlywinks. That fueled us even more.”

Dillian Cazley returned another kickoff for a score, going 85 yards, and his brother Josh rushed for 167 yards in the 40-14 victory. After the game, Halsey said: “I think the thing I’m pleased with the most is how our defense rebounded from last week. The defense staff took it personal and had a great week in practice. It’s not very often you hold Effingham to only 14 points.”

Cazley remembers that week of practice very well. 

“We took that game personally,” said Cazley. “We switched out the system we were using. Coach Hogan brought me down because he said most people aren’t going to throw the ball enough. I hated Effingham. Year after year, they seemed to beat us. I was like, no way, not this time.”

After a rout over Olney, CHS headed to Mount Zion, which was on a 25-game Apollo Conference winning streak. A highly anticipated game between two 3-0 games quickly got out of hand. 

Grant Naylor ran all over the Trojans, racking up 235 rushing yards on 29 carries, and three touchdown runs. Quarterback Nick Stroud rushed fo more than 100 yards. And the Trojans were held scoreless, 35-0. 

“You can ask any of my brothers this. I literally crawled under my bed, didn’t take a shower, and I was out,” said Dillian. “I was so beat up. I was out. The shield on my face was still on. I was so beat up physically after that game.”

The Trojans might have underestimated Mount Zion. 

“We went down there and won some games early and thought we were pretty good,” said Ethan Miller. “I think we thought Mount Zion wasn’t as good as they were. We took it easy and they beat the holy hell out of us in the first half. Second half didn’t get any better. I know the week after that, practice was not fun.”

Charleston was able to rebound against Paris the next week when Hussey connected with three different receivers in the end zone for a 28-7 victory. Creek also broke the career tackling mark in the game.

In a victory over Newton, Hussey and Spencer officially put their names in the record books forever. Hussey’s 393 passing yards eclipsed his father Kevin’s record by 40 yards. Spencer caught four touchdown passes, which was another school record.

“It was a blast because we had so many weapons,” said Noah Miller. “You could go get anything done with any single guy out there.”

One more win guaranteed a playoff berth. Robinson and CHS entered the game with identical 5-1 records. 

Welsh returned to gain 177 yards on 13 carries while Orion Roberts’ three-yard touchdown on an eight-plus-minute drive was one of many key factors in the 48-20 victory. 

“I remember being so frustrated missing most of the season,” Welsh said. “I kept pushing to come back and then I would come back too fast and hurt myself again. I finally came back and knew I had some catching up to do. When we had a chance to win the conference, that was the ultimate goal.”

After the game, public announcer Paul Slifer shared that Effingham pulled out a 15-14 victory over Mount Zion, which mean a win over Salem would give the Trojans a share of the conference title.

“We have two things we want to accomplish in the next two weeks, and that’s to get an Apollo Championship, and a first round playoff game at home,” Halsey said after the game. “That’s why this game is so important. This is the time of the year you want to be playing your best football.” 

The Trojans played outstanding football the last two weeks of the regular season. It started off with perhaps the team’s best defensive performance in years. Charleston held Salem to 54 passing yards, seven first downs, and did not allow a third-down conversion in the 46-15 victory, giving the team its first Apollo title since 2004. 

“I know when we trained all offseason, we had two goals in mind: win the Apollo and get to the playoffs,” said Winnett. “One time, Halsey made us carry weights above our head. He told us that was the conference trophy and to keep envisioning it.”

Ethan Miller runs through the defense. (photo/Steve Staskiewicz)

CHS then beat Highland for only the second time in school history with a 47-28 romp. Bence caught three passes for 153 total yards, going 22, 83 and 49 yards. 

That set up the first playoff game in Charleston in four years. 

“I remember how special that game was because it was our first-ever playoff game,” said Creek. “When I grew up in Arthur, they used to make the playoffs every year. I wanted to play in the playoffs so bad. I just remember when they first scored, Coach Hogan gave me the headset and told me to get my mind in the right place. We came down to Earth after that.”

Charleston hosted Waterloo in the first round of the playoffs, but before the week started there was much appraisal to the Trojans coaching staff. Twelve assistant coaches joined Halsey’s staff before the season. That included Bob Black, Cliff Campbell, Shad Ferguson, Tyler Hanner, Tim Hogan, Jim Kuykendall, Cliff McBenge, Jeff Miller, John Pogue, Chris Sczecsniak, Carl Wolfe and Jim Wood. 

The Trojans had plenty of big plays against Waterloo. With the score tied 28-28, Matt Wolfe’s strip and recovery on their own 39-yard line gave the team plenty of momentum. 

“We used to do this thing where we would take the nose guard and move left or right, so it would open us up more in the middle,” said Wolfe. “It gave us some speed on the line, so their center and guards had a tough time adjusting. Coach Hogan had us do that and it worked out.”

Roberts gave the Trojans the upper hand once again by causing another Waterloo fumble, and Hussey’s fourth-and-15 conversion touchdown pass to Spencer sealed the victory. The Trojans finished the game with 197 yards on the ground. 

CHS hosted another playoff game thanks to Herrin’s win over Columbia. The game was pushed back towards the evening so fans could watch Eastern Illinois’ Bob Spoo coach the last game of a 50-year coaching career. 

Herrin was not happy with the push back. “It’s high school football time,” said Herrin coach Jason Karnes to Nielsen. “I’m not too happy with it, to be honest. We have kids who will be getting home late and have church the next morning. I think the big picture is traveling with 75 players and cheerleaders. It’s no disrespect to Eastern, it’s just safety for the kids.”

Late game or not, they tied the record with a 34-21 victory. Several gutsy calls led to the win. Facing a 4th-and-6 in the second quarter, Welsh took a fake punt and rushed 23 yards for the first down. Two plays later, Josh Cazley broke through two tackles for a 25-yard touchdown run put CHS ahead, 14-0. 

“Halsey was always gutsy,” said Welsh. “Whenever he put faith in me, I knew I had to go big on those plays. It came out later that Halsey was the most nervous against Herrin. Halsey wanted to punch them right in the mouth and make a statement, and it worked. I mean, they were a good team. They were so much bigger than us. They had two Division I players on their team. It shifted the momentum for sure.”

Charleston finished with 243 rushing yards while Herrin’s All-State quarterback Antuan Davis was held to 6-of-13 passing for 78 yards and 92 rushing yards.

That set up the Elite Eight, and perhaps the game of the century. Mount Zion had upset top-seeded Breese Mater Dei, which meant Charleston would travel to Mount Zion for a rematch.

Many people downplayed Charleston’s chances, but this turned out to be the greatest game in school history. 

“I had a girlfriend back then and I was talking to her dad,” said Cazley. “He told me there were going to be ups and downs and you should expect it. Just believe in the system and believe in what you do, and it will take care of itself. I always remembered that.”

Mount Zion was without All-Apollo running back Naylor, but had a super sophomore back in Austin Rey, who had gone for well over 1,000 rushing yards. The Trojans took off to a 14-0 lead. 

After Creek’s six-yard touchdown run, Winnett gave Charleston the double-digit lead in the first half by picking up a loose fumble and returning it 44 yards for a touchdown. 

“I am pretty sure Chris hit their guy pretty hard and the ball just bounced right into Truston,” said Wolfe. “When he scored, he went up two scores. They just buried us the first time we played them. I was just thinking what the hell is happening right now?”

The Braves scored 14 points in under two minutes to tie the score at halftime. In the second half, Mount Zion opened with a touchdown by Stroud. Welsh kept the Trojans in the game with a 57-yard touchdown run in what he recalls as an angry moment. 

“I vividly remember that,” said Welsh. “I wanted to win the game so bad. Hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best for my body, but it was worth it even today. I remember that 57-yard touchdown. I was so mad. They were talking crap to us the whole time. I went up to Halsey and told him to give me the ball. I want it again. When I scored, I knew we had a real shot to win this game. Their quarterback played on defense. It felt so good to run him over like that.”

However, Stroud responded in two different ways. Stroud responded by breaking five tackles for a 67-yard touchdown. His subsequent tackle on Welsh in Charleston’s next offensive series forced him out of the game. The lone saving grace was that a failed PAT kept the score at 27-20 heading into the fourth quarter.   

“Stroud was the one that knocked me out with a concussion,” said Welsh. “At that moment, it was hazy and I was coming back. I remember he came over to apologize and I was like get off me. I feel bad now. He just wanted to say ‘my bad.’ He was an absolute stud.”

The game remained scoreless until the later part of the quarter. In Welsh’s absence, the Trojans ran a play with Dillian Cazley on the ground, but he fumbled the ball late in the game. 

“I remember that play like it was yesterday,” said Cazley. “I got the ball and broke the first tackle and then the second level of linebackers were there. One tackled me and the other punched the ball out. I went back to the sideline and everybody was telling me that it was cool. I was just so pissed off.”

With just minutes to play, Charleston forced Mount Zion to punt. The Trojans started on their own 44-yard line. After a first down, the Braves forced a third-and-14. Hussey found Winnett for a 37-yard touchdown to bring Charleston within 27-26. 

“Coach Halsey threw that formation together during that week of practice,” said Winnett. “It was devised to put Tibet and Aaron in the slots to run quick routes to draw the defense’s attention to the middle. From there, Hussey would call a fade on my side. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I was thinking I was going to shit my pants. I didn’t normally play offense. I had caught one ball all year. I was freaking out.”

Then, all you could hear was straight noise. 

“I remember the whole ground was shaking,” said Winnett. “It was the loudest thing I have ever heard.”

Charleston elected to go for the win on a two-point conversion. Cazley made up for his fumble late in the fourth quarter by catching the game-winner. Facing heavy pressure, Hussey flipped a shuffle pass to Cazley standing in the end zone. 

Here are just a few of the perspectives from, perhaps, the greatest play completed in school history. 

“It still gives me chills thinking when Truston caught that pass,” said Welsh. “Then, Dillian caught the flip. I talk to Aaron Bence and Jergun Smith at least once a month about that game like I’m still stuck in high school.”

TJ Bell hauls in a pass. (photo/Steve Staskiewicz)

“I was on the far side of the edge of the player’s box standing right next to Halsey,” said Winnett. “Right when that guy started to wrap up Sean, I thought we just blew it. Then all of a sudden, the ball flips and Cazley is wide open. I ran five yards onto the field throwing my hands in the air screaming some choice words.”

“Before he got the flip, I was on the sideline and it was silent,” said Creek, “As soon as he caught it, the whole defensive team went nuts. We said ‘this is our time.”

“I was on the other hash mark as a slot receiver,” said Ethan Miller. “The play broke down and all I could think was that we lost. The ball goes up and lands right in Cazley’s hand. I just remember jumping on one of our lineman and he caught me. After that, we had to calm down and play defense.”

Said Cazley: “I was open and I didn’t think he was going to get me the ball. I just kept thinking, ‘throw the ball, throw the ball.’ I caught the ball like it was a kickoff. We were so hyped and then it was crunch time. 

“I will never forget this old guy sitting on the sideline with an Effingham hat,” added Cazley. “I’ll never forget his face with that thick moustache. The whole game he kept yelling at me that I wasn’t very good. I remember catching that ball and looking straight at him. It was a magical moment.”

The big play put CHS ahead 28-27 with 1 minute, 59 seconds remaining in the game. Mount Zion had one chance left to overtake the Trojans, but couldn’t move the chains. A sack by Ryan Preston and a tackle for loss set up a third down. 

“Talk about a nail-biter all the way through,” said Noah Miller. “You couldn’t ask for a better finish. It really brought our small town together.”

A desperation play by Stroud was picked off by Spencer.

“I remember when Tibet picked him off, he started running and I was right behind him,” said Wolfe. “I kept screaming at him to go down. We had won. It’s over. Just go down. Finally, he went down and I just thought ‘thank God.”

Fans stormed the field.

After being decimated by the Braves 35-0 in the beginning of the season, the Trojans were going to the Final Four with a school-record 11th win. 

“It was the greatest game that I will ever be a part of,” said Creek. “We went from getting our ass kicked in Week 4 to beating them on the same exact field. Then, you throw in the whole playoff scenario. We went from losing 35-0 to beating them 28-27 two months later. Oh, my goodness.”

The Trojans now found themselves hosting the Final Four game. A pep rally was set the day before the game with former coaches and players Ken Baker, Verlon Myers, and Bill Monken giving motivational speeches. 

The offensive line was one of the biggest stories, helping protect Hussey to set a school record for touchdown passes in a season. The offensive line was led by Tevin Brookins, Cody Reeley, Daniel Hildebrandt, Cody Margentaller, Jacob Schrock, Ben Jackson and Jesse Campbell. 

The Trojans’ season came to an end against eventual state champion Rochester. Oklahoma State bound quarterback Wes Lunt (who eventually transferred to the University of Illinois), and All-State wide receiver Zach Grant (who also eventually transferred to Illinois) helped Rochester overcome a second quarter deficit to win 41-13. 

Grant eventually finished his senior year with 2,310 receiving yards, which shattered the previous Illinois state record of 1,631. He also holds the record for most receptions (13) in a state title game for Class 4A. 

“I saw Zach Grant later and he was a straight-up great guy,” said Creek. “He told me you guys had the nastiest defense they had ever played. I was just like ‘whoa.’ That’s how good that team was. That’s how good he was.”

The 13-6 second quarter lead by Charleston was helped with the wind gusting, but with Lunt’s back to the wind, he was unstoppable. Rochester played the villain to spoil a great season. 

“It’s like we were one step away from turf,” Spencer told Nielsen after the game. “We could smell it.” 

The records the team accomplished are amazing. Starting on offense, Hussey broke every passing record. With a year remaining, Hussey held all the career passing records. Spencer became the school-record holder for most receptions in a season. It was the best CHS offense since 1966. Four players still rank in the top-25 all-time in points scored, and Winnett didn’t even play offense until the following season. Josh Cazley (218 points) is the career-points record holder, Noah Miller (172) is ranked No. 4, Welsh (114) is No. 19, and Winnett (110) is No. 21 all-time. 

Creek set the career tackle records becoming the first ever CHS player to record at least 400 career tackles. Winnett tied the school record for most interceptions in a season record by picking off nine passes.

Punter Ethan Miller didn’t break a record, but he was ranked No. 1 for punting yardage. Creek was named to the Class 4A All-State team while Hussey was named honorable mention. Halsey was eventually named the 2011 Decatur Herald & Review Coach of the Year.

The core of that team returned in 2013, but was infamously paired with No. 1 ranked Rochester in the second round of the playoffs despite being the No. 3 ranked team in the state at the time. The team finished 9-2 that season, falling short of reaching 11 wins once again. 

It’s been seven years since CHS has fielded a winning football season. Even with that stretch, Cazley believes that one day they can get back to their winning ways, and maybe even get to the 12-win mark. 

“It could happen. I hope it happens,” said Dillian. “It’ll get broken one day. Who knows when that will be, though. I bet when those teams in the ’70s had 10 wins, they thought that total would never get broken, and it did. All it takes is just another great group of guys.”