The Edwardsville Tigers began the 2017 season with three straight losses. They ended it with nine wins in 10 outings and were a win away from a berth in the Clasa 8A state championship game.
So what is in store for the Tigers in 2018?
“I’ve been honest with this group. We believe that this group has a chance to do something special,’’ Tigers coach Matt Martin said. “ We’ve had some bad luck already too. Last year’s group stayed relatively healthy. Is that good luck? Is that a product of how we train or how we practice? But our best lineman (Josh) Anderson was injured at a college camp and is out for the season. That poses a challenge for us.’’
Edwardsville, which hosts McCluer North to open the season on Aug. 24, will have talented players throughout its lineup this fall. The Tigers also welcome back senior running back Dionte Rodgers to a loaded backfield.
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A standout as a sophomore two years ago when he ran for over 1,500 yards and 25 touchdowns, Rodgers was injured during the 2017 season. The addition of a healthy Rodgers will also take some of the pressure off senior quarterback Kendall Abdur-Rahman.
The Belleville News-Democrat Large School Player of the year last season when he finished with nearly 2,000 yards of total offense, scored 26 touchdowns and added eight touchdown passes, Abdur-Rahman has scholarship offers from several Big 10 and Big 12 Conference schools as well as Notre Dame.
According to Martin, Abdur-Rahman has shown early signs that he’ll be even better in 2018.
“Kendall is better than he was last year,’’ Martin said. “His decision making is better, he’s bigger, faster and stronger and he’s in better shape at this time now then he was last year at this time.
“Kendall’s maturity level is also better. He’s also got goals. He wants to be a better football player.’’
Among the other key players on offense who return for the Tigers will be sophomore Justin Johnson, two-way starter Norman Harris and wide receiver Lavontas Hairston.
On defense, the Tigers linebackers, Evan Ramirez (6-1, 205) and Jacob Morrissey (6-0, 210) will be among the best in the Southwestern Conference, while senior Ryan Strohmeier (6-1, 195) returns to compete the trio of linebackers.
WESCLIN WARRIORS (9-1)
After the best regular season in school history which included the Cahokia Conference championship, the Warriors stay in the postseason proved to be a short one as it dropped a first round playoff game to Pleasant Plains (51-20).
One year later, coach Ric Johns has moved on to lead the Jersey Community program and former Mater Dei and Centralia coach Ray Kauling takes over what should be a Warriors team which still may be the team to beat in the Cahokia Conference this fall.
Kauling, who is the Wesclin athletic director, is familiar with the Warriors talent.
“We’ve had a good camp thus far. The kids attitude has been great,’’ Kauling said. “It’s so much different than it was 20 years ago with the things you can do in the summer. The kids conditioning is way ahead of what it used to be when camp begins. Or at least it should be.’’
The Warriors, who open the season on Aug. 24 at Dupo, lost quarterback Josh DeMage and several others to graduation. But among those returning are senior running back Gavin Bilbruck and four of starters on an offensive line which was among the best in any class a year ago.
Bilbruck (6-1, 190) ran for 1,206 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. Those numbers should be even better this fall while running behind a huge offensive front which includes Jacob Brown (6-2, 305) Christian Bair (6-2, 260), Grant Heier (6-4, 245) and Kolden Rapien (6-5, 290)
“Brown is a three-year all-conference lineman and I think Rapien and Bair were all-conference as well last year. It’s nice to have those kids back. They’ve got a little bit of an attitude as well and that’s good to see,’’ Kauling said. “ They’re big and strong. We just have to stay healthy and hopefully good things will happen for us.’’
Senior Brandt Goings takes over for DeMage at quarterback and is a solid athlete according to Kauling.
“Brandt is a kid who played quarterback growing up.,’’ Kauling said. “Like Josh (DeMage) he has good understanding of the game and what we need him to do.’’
The 2017 season wasn’t what veteran coach Scott Horner had hoped as the perennial Cahokia Conference contending Eagles battled injuries and ended the season at 5-5 following a first round playoff loss to Herscher.
This season, armed with a junior quarterback in Nic Horner, two speedy running backs in Donovan Bieber and Ronnie Hunsaker and a huige offensive, the Eagles could be flying atop the league standings by the end of the year.
“Our hopes? To stay healthy, play one game at a time and play for each other.,’’’ Scott Horner said. “The culture of our program took a hit last season and our kids are focused on bringing the conference title back to Columbia. ‘’
In the backfield and out wide, the Eagles have speed. Both Bieber, who ran for (393 yards, 7 TD’s) and Nic Horner (16 TD passes) gained valuable experience a year ago while Sam Horner had 16 catches and four touchdowns at wide receciever
All four players will benefit from an offensive line which returns four of five starters. Anchoring those guys is 6-8 senior Cole Khoury along with returners Ryan Weatherford at center, Cade Napier (6-5 240), twin brother Chase Napier (6-2, 240) and Connor Holten (6-2, 250) fighting at the guard spots. Ryan Hornbostel (6-4, 230) will be a mainstay at the other tackle spot.
Now in his 21st season as a head coach, Paul Bassler is going back to teaching this season. And he is loving every minute of it.
One year after leading the Knights to an 8-2 season, Bassler has one of his most inexperienced teams in years with just 11 seniors on the ‘18 Triad roster.
“We had a big group of 26 seniors last year who graduated and we’re very thin in the senior class with only 11 seniors on our roster. Because of that we’re going a lot of teaching and I’m loving it. I’m earning my paycheck this year instead of standing and watching other guys,’’ Baasler said. “Not many of these kids have played so we’ll have to be patient here the first couple of weeks.
The Knights open their season at Mattoon on Friday then host Collinsville in week two.
The Knights do have some talent returning. Running back Devin Towns gained over 400 yards and averaged almost five yards per carry while Luke Foreman (239 yards) and Amaziah Lusk (145 yards) also return in the backfield.
Senior Evan Anderson is one of two starting offensive linemen who will return while Logan Wongler is one of two players competing for the starting job at quarterback.