By Kyle Daubs

If this were a normal season, Effingham would be a favorite to win the state football championship. 

After all, the Flaming Hearts return a deep senior class from an IHSA Class 4A Final Four team last season. Effingham came within a game of the state title game in 2019, losing 20-17 to Murphysboro (Coop).

A strong performance against Effingham would be a giant step after nearly a decade of dismal results. Charleston has not had a winning season since 2012.

“Effingham is no doubt one of the top teams in the Apollo,” said CHS coach Jerry Payne. “A win over them would be a positive booster for our program. Our only win over a winning team in the last few years was Taylorville last season. If we are fortunate enough to beat Effingham, that would give our kids some momentum moving forward. In the end, we are going to go out and work hard, look to compete, and let everything play out.”

Effingham finished 11-2 last season and returns six All-Apollo players, including wide receiver Tristin Duncan and running back Chase Woomer. Woomer led the Hearts to a 21-7 victory over Mahomet-Seymour last week with 151 yards on 29 carries. The run game was strong with Trevor Donsbach carrying the ball eight times for 66 yards, while Keegan Baker added three carries for 12 yards. All three running backs scored a touchdown. Duncan led receivers with 79 yards. 

With All-Apollo right tackle Ethan Huss, a 5-foot-10, 315-pounder, leading the way, Payne expects to see Effingham look to run again. 

“Their quarterback is about 6-foot-3, so he will have a little bit of an advantage seeing down the field, but they are a pretty run-heavy team,” said Payne. “Last week, they didn’t show a lot of passing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, so we will have to remain prepared. We’re going to have to stop the run. That’s been our focus this week. We have to have our players be in a good position to dominate the line and shred through the blocks they present.”

The game last week had been deadlocked at 0-0 at halftime before Effingham gave up its lone touchdown in the second half.

Effingham returns several all-conference players on defense, too – linebacker Jacob Stoneburner (6-3, 220) , cornerback Parker Wolfe (6-0, 170), defensive tackle Alex Baughman (5-10, 220) and defensive lineman Austin Herborth (5-10, 185).

Payne, of course, hopes his offensive line can play at the same level it did in churning out yards in beating Lincoln 54-0 last week, Cory Spour ran for 206 yards and a touchdown. 

“Our main focus from last week was that our line played well on both sides of the ball,” said Payne. “Because of them, Cory Spour, Jack Nelson, Ty Courtney, Brayden Rennels, and Sam Schuette were able to do what they did. The line was our MVP last week. They made everyone look better.”

Since Charleston’s last winning season in 2012, Charleston has combined for eight wins, but last season appeared to be a step in the right direction. Effingham was on the winning side with a 35-14 win, but the game was much more in reach than year’s past. 

“I’m not exactly sure how things will play around, but we should be stronger in some positions because it’s the second year of our system with all these guys,” Payne said. “We hope that helps us out a bit.”

He also knows that this could be one of their best opponents on the schedule during this brief season. 

“It’s hard to believe we are already one-third of the way over,” said Payne. “It’s going to be a step up in the competition. Effingham will present a few more challenges than Lincoln. Overall, they are a good ball club. Last season, they had 11 wins and went a couple of rounds into the playoffs. They still have some pretty good players.”