By Kyle Daubs

The football season took one baby step forward on Thursday. 

Charleston and Mattoon will kick off a delayed and abbreviated high school football season on March 5 in likely a new, familiar location – Trojan Field.

The two teams are expected to play seven games apiece overall, which will include one game against am Illinois Prairie Conference team, a move prompted by state health guidelines that preclude teams from competing against teams outside their regions in order to diminish the impact of COVID-19. The Green Wave will play Monticello while Charleston will face St. Joseph-Ogden.

Monticello qualified for the IHSA state football playoffs last year with a 6-4 record after beating Olympia, St. Thomas More, Rantoul, Bloomington Central Catholic and St. Joseph Ogdon. They lost to Tolono Unity, Fairbury Prairie Central, Illinois Valley Central, and then DuQuoin (28-25) in the playoffs. 

“Truth is, I don’t know much about them,” Johnson said. “Anyone who has been around me long enough knows I take everything one game at a time. I’m not smart enough to think ahead like that. Truth is, we will play whoever it is on the other side of the field.”

The Coles County Clash might move from EIU’s O’Brien Stadium, where it regularly attracted anywhere from 5-7,000 fans each September.

In addition, no state playoffs are expected to be played. The IHSA suggested that schools might create regional championships, but no plans have yet been announced for this area.

 It is likely to be much colder when the intra-county rivalry takes place in early March, but that does doesn’t bother CHS football coach Jerry Payne.

“It’s definitely going to make the start more interesting,” Payne said. “It could set the tone for each program. With most of our season being all conference games, we could start off really good, or mess us up going forward.”

The Green Wave have started off the season with a non-conference game each season since joining the Apollo in 2013. But the program was forced to open with a conference opponent in the Big 12. 

“In reality, it’s nice to start the season with a non-conference opponent and treat it as a warmup game,” said Mattoon football coach Troy Johnson. “Either way, we will take whatever and whenever. When I was at Marshall, we played Casey-Westfield Week 1 and that was sort of our main rivalry.”

It is not clear how many fans will be allowed to attend the rivalry game in Charleston, but much will can change in the next seven months.

“I’ve heard different discussions,” said Payne. “I’m not sure how it is going to be possible right now to have that sort of capacity of a crowd unless something changes.”

Both coaches say the would miss fans a great deal.

“It’s always nice to play at home. I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” said Johnson. “The exception is playing at EIU. It’s quite a deal for our guys and their guys. Our fans and their fans. I think everyone really enjoys that. I was just looking at pictures the other day and I mainly was looking at the crowd. As far as the game goes, you always have to be prepared to play on the road and perform, so I’m not worried about all that stuff.”

It’s not certain whether Mattoon would play Charleston at home next season, or if both teams would return to O’Brien Field in 2021. 

“It’s the same way for both teams, so I am not going to premake excuses,” Johnson said. “We just have to be ready for when the time comes to play. We are going through some weird times and I’m just going to do whatever they tell me. Hopefully, everyone is ready to go when the time comes.”

Payne says he prefers playing this rivalry game on one of the team’s home turf. 

“I don’t know if there is going to be any consideration to look at EIU,” said Payne. “Right now, we are hearing about Charleston. It would be cool to play at a neutral site like EIU because of more fans, but it’s also pretty cool to play Mattoon on our home field. Personally, I don’t mind if it was like that all the time. EIU draws huge crowds, but it’s going to be nice playing at home.”

The order of Charleston’s schedule has not been finalized yet, but the opponents are set – six Apollo foes and St. Joseph-Ogden, another IHSA state football qualifier after going 5-5. The Spartans defeated St. Thomas More, Rantoul, Pontiac, Olympia and Bloomington Central Catholic before losing to Williamsville in the postseason.

“I don’t know much about them yet,” said Payne. “One of my coaches gets into the stats a lot heavier than I do. He looked to compare and see where we match up. They were in the middle of their conference last year, but we haven’t seen a film on them yet. Honestly, we are going to take it one game at a time. From here to the start of the season, we will have our focus on Mattoon.”

Payne says he is glad to see a semblance of normal these days. 

“It’s just so nice to see school sports going on right now,” said Payne. “We go in the morning. We have seen tennis out. The cross country team is out running. Baseball and softball are practiced. It’s just nice to look at the school fields and courts and see them out there.”

MATTOON FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

March 5MHS at Charleston
March 12MHS vs. Mahomet
March 19MHS at Mt Zion
March 26MHS at Taylorville
April 2MHS vs. Effingham
April 9MHS at Monticello
April 16MHS vs. Lincoln