As we enter the first week of the IHSA state football playoffs, both Mattoon and Charleston will be on the sidelines for the postseason.
Mattoon hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2018.
While the 4-2 record last year was a nice start, Charleston still hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2012. After their 2-7 record this past year, Charleston recorded its ninth losing season in the past 10 years.
Mattoon finished the year 3-6, but was a handful of possessions from being 5-4 and in the hunt for the playoffs. With head coach Troy Johnson retiring, there are equivocally unknown waters ahead for the Green Wave.
Coles County has gone three years without a team in the playoffs. When will we see a return?
Mystery at quarterback
For the first time in three years, Mattoon will enter next season with a question mark at quarterback. Jackson Spurgeon finished a senior year in which he completed 97-of-181 passes for 1,511 yards, 11 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Spurgeon also rushed for 348 yards, where he was the team’s second-leading rusher. Spurgeon’s greatest attribute might be his leadership. The Green Wave will have to find a way to reload at the position.
Charleston’s Jack Nelson saw a dip in his production his senior year. Nelson completed 65-of-133 yards for 826 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. The Trojans’ backup quarterback, Nate Shrader, completed three passes for 36 yards, meaning the team will also be looking for someone without varsity experience at the position.
Tariek Grace has an upside
As the year progressed, we saw Mattoon’s running back come into his own. Grace finished the year leading the Green Wave with 537 rushes on 107 carries. Grace will be the undisputed leading running back next year, but how much will we see him progress next year? Grace has the potential to be the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher in Mattoon in the last three seasons.
Charleston hasn’t seen a 1,000-yard rusher since Myles Decker (1,320) in 2013. To make matters worse, Charleston loses six of its eight players who had a rushing attempt this season. That includes Shrader, who led the team with 294 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
A deep wideout class
It will be an absolute shock if Derrius White doesn’t make the First Team All-Apollo list as a wideout. White didn’t hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark, but he showed that he is one of the best in the red zone this year. While all stats for Apollo teams are unavailable, White had to be among the leaders with eight receiving touchdowns this year. White led the Green Wave with 35 receptions for 693 yards.
Mattoon will also lose senior Matthew Gordon, who had 23 receptions for 328 yards. Sophomore Slater Trier enters next season as the team’s top receiver after finishing his season with 19 receptions for 287 yards.
For Charleston, whomever takes over at quarterback will have a top receiver returning. Sophomore Luke Nelson led the team with 15 receptions for 270 yards. Charleston will need more pieces to step up next year after the Trojans had the second-fewest points scored in the Apollo Conference this season – 122. Only Taylorville (109) scored fewer.
A defensive overhaul
Take away a 56-point blowout by the state’s No. 9 ranked team in the final game of the season and the Green Wave would be in the mix for the second-best defense in the Apollo Conference. Linebacker Aiden Spurgeon should be a First-Team All-Apollo selection at linebacker and a unanimous selection at that. Spurgeon recorded 150 tackles this season, 80 solo and 70 assists. He also recorded 16.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and one forced fumble.
While replacing his production will be extremely difficult, Mattoon has some pieces to be excited about for next season. That starts with sophomore Aidan Blackburn, who was second on the team in tackles with 61 and tackles for loss at 7.5. Blackburn could contend for a Second-Team selection, if undefeated Mahomet-Seymour doesn’t gobble all the places. T.J. Owens and Riley Spencer had solid seasons and will have to take on bigger roles with White, Gordon, and Kobe Cardwell leaving.
Charleston’s best chance to have a player on the All-Apollo defensive squad might be Aiden Dukeman, who led the team with 63 tackles. Luke Nelson will return as the team’s leading tackler next season, but the defense will have to find a way to replace 15 seniors who played on the defensive end.
‘New’ will be the theme next year
A new head coach, new quarterbacks, new receivers, and a defensive turnaround – Mattoon’s future will feature quite a few new faces. Mattoon was in a somewhat similar situation in 2019 after the team finished 2-7 and grew some of its sophomores to the current senior situation this year. Despite finishing 3-6, Mattoon was in nearly every game it played.
Mattoon led Troy Triad 13-6 in the fourth quarter before allowing 20 fourth-quarter points. An undefeated Collinsville team narrowly defeated the Green Wave 28-22, while the team also dropped a heartbreaking 35-34 game to Lincoln. A handful of plays and we are talking about a 6-3 Mattoon team playing in the first round.
The Green Wave will be in a similar position as Charleston, which won one game outside of its forfeit over Robinson. Jerry Payne has been in this situation before.
Payne took over the program after Charleston finished back-to-back seasons 0-9. After a 3-6 season the first year, Charleston was likely heading to the playoffs before COVID-19 moved the season to the spring and took away the playoffs. With 28 freshmen on the roster, the future is bright, assuming that the coaching staff can develop these young men along the way.
The next leader of Mattoon will have an interesting storyline. The clear favorite for the job should be assistant coach Jarad Kimbro. He applied for the job 13 years ago and didn’t get it, but he put in 13 years of coaching alongside his friend, Johnson. Whoever it will be, he will have to embrace the theme for next year.
Hopefully, a new narrative regarding playoff football in Coles County.