By Kyle Daubs

Dubbing tonight’s Mattoon-Charleston girls basketball game as the Apollo Conference Championship seems premature in CHS coach Jeff Miller’s opinion. 

Charleston (5-0) is a game ahead of Mattoon (4-1) in the conference standings.

Miller believes this rivalry game, set for 6 p.m. at the MHS gym, already carries enough hype. 

“It’s too early in my opinion to think about any of that,” said Miller. “The whole conference is pretty good. People are beating each other every night. Each game is big because each team in the conference is dangerous.”

Mattoon’s lone loss was 40-35 to Effingham before rattling off three straight victories. With a win, Mattoon would move into a tie with Charleston atop the Apollo.

“We play in a tough conference, so every game we play is important and affects the standings,” said Mattoon coach Amanda Aydt. “Charleston has a good team. Everyone will have to do their job on defense to stop Charleston.”

Charleston’s offense is led by all-stater Shae Littleford (above), who is averaging 26.0 points, 5.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.8 steals per game. She enters tonight’s game with 1,739 career points, 29 from passing Stephanie Harper (1,767) for No. 2 on the all-time list. Littleford needs 138 points to pass Morgan Sherwood (1,876) to become the all-time leader in scoring at Charleston. 

Littleford has a stronger supporting cast this season.  Sophomore Alycia Triplett is averaging 11.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, senior Kat Blase leads the team at 9.8 rebounds per game and senior Hannah Buescher adds 9.8 points a game. 

With a high-powered offense averaging 62.8 points per game, some might forget that this is a rivalry game, which brings its own excitement. 

“Every game we play is exciting,” said Aydt. “There is always a little extra excitement when Mattoon and Charleston get together, even though the atmosphere will be a little different this year.”

In a normal year, these teams wouldn’t need to be among the top teams in the Apollo to pack either gym. 

“Anytime you go to Mattoon, it’s a tough situation,” said Miller. “Even with no fans, it’s still Mattoon-Charleston. It’s a Coles County thing. We’re excited. Mattoon’s a pretty good basketball team with several really good players.”

Junior Mallory Ramage (above) hasn’t slowed down since her All-State season from last year. In her past two games, Ramage has dropped 33 points on Mount Zion and 31 points against Taylorville. 

With Ramage heading to Loyola-Chicago and Littleford to UT-Martin, it’s the first time these Coles County teams will each feature a committed NCAA Division I athlete in at least a generation. 

“Mallory Ramage and Delainey Bryant are outstanding All-Conference players,” said Miller. “We aren’t going to change our philosophy going into this, though. We’re just going to go in and play our style of basketball.”

Mattoon swept both games in blowout fashion last season – 68-27 and 77-47.

But Triplett is the only current CHS starter who was in both lineups. Littleford missed the first game with an injury and had recently recovered before the second matchup. In addition, Buescher and Blase have returned after taking one and two seasons off, respectively, to focus on volleyball.

Mattoon, meanwhile, graduated two players who were both solid rebounders and defenders – Jordan Sapp and Hallie Niemerg.

“They are a well-coached basketball team,” said Miller. “You look at their passing, they are right up there with some of the best. Mattoon in general is just a tough game. In the past, we’ve had some pretty good Charleston teams get beat in Mattoon. Mattoon has had some pretty good teams come to Charleston and get beat. Even though there are no state rankings, I’d say Mattoon would be right up there with some of the best. Overall, Mattoon-Charleston has a great atmosphere and it’s going to be a fun game when we play each other.”