The Mattoon Green Wave football team had an extremely difficult non-conference schedule last year.
Troy Triad, Collinsville and Marion combined for a record of 26-11 and all three teams made the playoffs. Combine that with an 11-1 Mahomet-Seymour team, a 6-4 Mount Zion squad – as well as Lincoln and Effingham, who each finished 4-5 and just missed the playoffs.
The schedule features the same opponents, but senior inside linebacker T.J. Owens says bring it on.
“I firmly believe this team can play with anyone,” said Owens. “We are not afraid to smack you in the mouth play after play. We play physical football and are a relentless football team. Coach (Jarad) Kimbro preaches physical football and we all are bought into it.”
Owens returns after playing valuable minutes last season on the defensive side. Owens recorded 48 tackles, one tackle for loss, a half-sack, three pass deflection and a fumble recovery. Heading into his senior year, Owens has said he has been taking the offseason as seriously as he can while balancing out baseball.
“I’ve been in the gym day in and day out while working with some of the other guys on the team,” said Owens. “I’ve really been trying to step into the leadership role on the team. We have all been trying to bring the new guys up to speed so they can help us win as soon as possible.”
Mattoon lost several key members from a 3-6 team – All-Apollo lineman and linebacker Aiden Spurgeon, who led the state in tackles; second-team QB Jackson Spurgeon; second-team receiver Derrius White; and second-team defensive lineman Sam Bradbury also all graduated.
On defense, Aiden Spurgeon recorded 150 tackles, including 16.0 tackles for loss. Owens said that one of his goals is to specifically step into Spurgeon’s role on defense, something he knows will be difficult to do.
“I personally want to step into Aidan’s spot and fill his shoes as best I can,” said Owens. “They’re big shoes to fill, but I believe I can.”
Jackson Spurgeon threw for 1,511 yards and 11 touchdowns with eight of those touchdown passes going to White. Slater Trier, the team’s third-best receiver last year, is moving to quarterback. The team also lost its second-leading receiver Matthew Gordon to graduation.
Despite the losses, Owens said the new players are moving forward nicely.
“I think the whole offense is looking good, and they’re doing it quicker than expected in my opinion,” said Owens. “With some of the guys we lost from last year we expected them to slowly get to speed, but they have done a great job meshing and working well. Our defense looks good. We have a few learning curves with new linemen coming in this season, but overall both sides of the ball are looking good so far.”
Owens said that the team understands that the senior class from last season featured talented players, but, he says, there is excitement about younger players coming up. Owens also said to keep an eye on senior Chase Woodard.
“It’s hard after losing guys like the Spurgeons and that whole senior class,” said Owens. “I think it’ll take a lot of us to step up to be successful. I think the line and I can step up and play a pivotal role in helping our offense score points. I also think Chase Woodard is a guy who will step up and keep our defensive backfield in check throughout the year. Chase is a stud at corner who has a resilient work ethic. I expect him to step up in a huge way after losing Derrius. I think all the new guys are looking to step up; there are a lot but they have shown up ready to work and ready to learn. They make me excited for this fall.”
Mattoon hasn’t made the playoffs since 2018, which was the team’s last winning season. Owens said this group, of course, would like to change that.
“For the team goal, we want to bring Mattoon football back to the playoffs and compete for a conference title,” said Owens. We believe that we can contend for an Apollo title and make a run for the playoffs. We know we are a hard-nosed team that doesn’t ever lay down for anyone, and we think we can contend with anyone and everyone. The team has bought in and the goal is to bring us back to playing November Football.”