By Mike Monahan

The football season is almost, finally here.

The team endured its fall season getting canceled, interruptions in practice dates by the IHSA and cold weather while training in an unusual time.

So, after a 2-7 season and a six-month delay, Mattoon will open the season 7 p.m. Friday at Mount Zion in what will be a six-game schedule with no postseason. 

Mattoon returns 10-12 players who started last season, as well as 20 lettermen, says Mattoon coach Troy Johnson, who is in his 13th season with a 46-68. He is 98-82 across 19 seasons, including six guiding Marshall.

Junior quarterback Jackson Spurgeon returns after his first season leading the Green Wave offense. Last season, he completed 84 of 163 passing attempts for 695 yards with eight touchdowns, averaging 107.2 yards a game. 

“He is looking good and progressing,” said Johnson. “It is nice to have one year under his belt as a sophomore. We need to keep building on that.”

Second team all-Apollo linebacker Zachary Shick, a senior, also returns

A total of 18 players are gone from last year’s team due to graduation. 

“We have a lot of good competition,” said Johnson. “The numbers are down varsity-wise, but everybody that is a varsity travel guy is going to have to contribute.  We have five freshmen that will travel with the team.”

The varsity includes eight seniors, 10 juniors, seven sophomores and five freshmen for a total of 30. A total of 49 players are in the program with 19 on the junior varsity team, including 12 on the varsity roster. 

Seniors Dillon Burton, Kagan Kirts, Shick, Dakota Spencer and Zach Watkins were all sophomores on the Mattoon team that went 7-4 and reached the second round of the Class 5A playoffs in 2018. 

Other seniors are Hayden Williams, Nathaniel Eldridge, and Jakai Johnson.

Practice began March 5 and not Feb. 25, which was the original date after delaying the season that normally runs from August through October with the postseason in November. Feb. 25 was the day of the blizzard. Normally teams have 16 days of practice, including Saturdays before the first game, but this year they have 10 days. The weather could be a lot different than in the fall as well. 

“We are really happy to be going,” said Johnson. “When they first OK’d workouts, it (temperature) was in the low teens. We have been doing some things like just trying to get them to understand the weather as we don’t know what it is going to be like. It could be a negative number. We try not to let temperatures bother us at all. The only thing that will shut us down is the snow. We have been outside for the most part and on some frigid temperature days.”

Johnson said many players trained on their own this past winter and when IHSA rules forced delays and interruptions in practices.

“We would get fired up and get rolling, and then they would shut us down,” said Johnson. “I could tell the kids that were doing things on their own when we were shut down as they were lifting in their garage or at the YMCA. I feel like a majority (of the platers) did some when we were not in contact and that should be a benefit for us.”

Johnson will use several players on both offense and defense, such as Schick, Johnson and Eldridge who bolster the running game.

Wide receivers Derrius White, Kirts, Logan Blackburn also expect play both sides. Burton, the backup quarterback, is expected to play both receiver and defensive back.

“Burton has done a good job at receiver,” said Johnson, who lost the top two receivers from last year in Caden Price and Blake Sapp, who had 29 and 21 receptions, respectively. “We have some kids that can catch the ball and run it. Blackburn could really help us as a sophomore.”

Junior Aiden Spurgeon has moved from fullback to an offensive line that includes Watkins, Wyatt Arndt, Dakota Spencer, Tyler Baker and Riley Spencer, a sophomore who has looked good, Johnson said.

Tanner Baker will likely switch between tight end and running back.

“We will have a number of kids go in and out and some guys will be two-way players which we have to have,” said Johnson. “We do have some depth for them to come out of the game.”

Last season Mattoon averaged 14.3 points per game and allowed an average of 32.7. 

“Shick is back at inside linebacker and T.J. Owens is at linebacker, while Eldridge is also a linebacker,” said Johnson. “Aiden Spurgeon is also looking good. We are trying to create one-way players as much as we can possibly get.”

Austin Hilgenberg and Dakota Spencer strengthen the defensive line. 

Freshman Evan Chaney will handle kicking duties, while punter is still up for grabs. 

“The kids have been on board,” said Johnson. “Even though our numbers are low, the ones that are committed are excited. I have been impressed with the hard work that has been done by the kids. They have really matured and have done a good job. A couple of years ago, I would not have expected them to do that and I am impressed with that.”

Johnson said with the shortened number of days for practice they have been working on getting players acclimated to new positions.

“With the shortened practice days we have not been able to do a lot of stuff,” said Johnson. “What we want to do well we don’t have a lot of time since there are not a lot of practices. We have moved some kids around and so we are getting them experienced at a new position. That has been a focus.”

The Green Wave have two home games this season – on April 2 (Effingham) and April 16 (Lincoln). 

“Our schedule is fine, “ said Johnson. “We lost the third home game on a coin flip. It is one game at a time for me whether we are home or away, that is not my decision and something I can’t control. You can’t worry about that.”

Johnson never expected to play a season.

“I really didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Johnson. “I was sick for the seniors and concerned for those kids. We don’t have very many, but the ones we do work really hard. I was hoping there would be an opportunity for them to do something.”

TEAM ROSTER

Head coach: Troy Johnson, 13th season at Mattoon 46-68 (.404) overall 19th season 98-82 (.544)

Assistant coaches: Matt Carpenter, Mike Carter, Jarod Kiger, Jarad Kimbro, Scott Kinney, Billy Manning, and Chuck Pullen

Seniors

(No., Ht., Wt., Pos.)

1 Dillon Burton 6-1 150 WR/DB

18 Nathaniel Eldridge 5-4 145 RB/LB

19 Zachary Shick 6-0 195 RB/LB

22 Jakai Johnson 5-8 140 RB/DB

31 Kegan Kirts 6-2 158 WR/DB

56 Zach Watkins 5-9 185 OL/DL

71 Hayden Williams 6-2 N/A TE/DB

78 Dakota Spencer 6-0 205 OL/DL

Juniors

5 Shay Carter Alvis 6-0 175 WR/DB

10 Jackson Spurgeon 6-0 190 QB/LB

24 Derrious White 5-10 157 WR/DB

25 Tanner Baker 6-0 180 RB/LB

28 Diego Mendoza 5-11 165 RB/LB

35 Matthew Gordon 6-0 150 RB/DB

50 Aidan Spurgeon 5-11 200 RB/LB

55 Austin Hilgenberg 6-0 203 OL/DL

60 Tyler Baker 5-8 180 OL/DB

77 Wyatt Arndt 6-3 230 OL/DL

Sophomores

3 Logan Blackburn 5-4 125 RB/LB

7 T.J. Owens 5-8 175 FB/LB

21 Chase Woodard 5-10 150 WR/DB

49 Kyus Root 5-11 185 RB/LB

52 Cayden Knierim 5-10 178 OL/DL

73 Riley Spencer 6-0 170 OL/DL

76 Carson Body 5-11 346 OL/DL

Freshmen

2 Slater Trier 5-5 95 QB/DB

11 Wilson Spraker 5-9 145 WR/LB

14 Evan Chaney 5-10 128 QB/DB

23 Aidan Blackburn 5-8 145 RB/LB

32 Gavin Cline 5-7 268 RB/LB

SCHEDULE

Varsity

Games: 7 p.m. unless noted

(Last year’s scores in parentheses)

Friday – at Mount Zion* (L, 50-7)

March 26 – at Taylorville* (L, 34-13)

April 2 – EFFINGHAM (Senior Night)* (L, 42-0)

April 10 – at Monticello (2 p.m.)

April 16 – LINCOLN* (L, 29-28)

April 23 – at Charleston* (W, 27-14)

*-Apollo Conference game

FRESH-SOPH SCHEDULE

(All games start at 6 p.m.)

March 22 – MOUNT ZION

March 29 – TAYLORVILLE

April 5-at Effingham

April 12 – at Monticello

April 19 – at Lincoln

April 26 – CHARLESTON