Nonconference affiliation presents a mix of good and bad for the independent Mater Dei Knights.
On one hand, finding enough games to fill out a nine-week schedule is a challenge.
“We try to get games in the Cahokia Conference and the Mississippi Valley Conference ... wherever,” said Mater Dei head coach Jim Stiebel. “But when you’ve been to the state semifinals, nobody wants to play you.”
And any team that agrees to take on the Knights tends to be a bonafide heavyweight. Eight of Mater Dei’s nine regular season opponents were playoff qualifiers in 2016, including a pair of Missouri schools in Lutheran North of St. Louis and St. Charles West.
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“There are no gimmes. Every week is a battle for the playoffs,” Stiebel said. “It’s not like an independent has a choice. That’s just the pickle we’re in.
The flip side of playing a nine-game gauntlet is that it leaves Mater Dei hardened for the post season and the Knights have made a habit of last-season surges.
Last season, they lost two of their first three games only to earn their place in the Illinois 4A football playoffs and advance to the state semifinal game against Althoff.
It’s been almost the same script in 2016.
Three consecutive losses capped by their Milk Bowl rivalry game with cross-town Central and a week 8 loss to St. Charles (Mo.) West dropped the Knights to 4-4, setting them up for a must-win in the season finale.
But winning with its back against the wall is they Knights do — they defeated Waterloo by a touchdown.
Mater Dei’s 53 playoff points — one for each of its opponents’ victories — was by far the most of any team in Illinois from any class. This is not the typical 5-4, 11th-seeded high school playoff team.
“St. Charles West and Lutheran North might be the most athletic teams we played all year, and you know the rest of our schedule,” Stiebel said. “Without a doubt, if we can get through our schedule to the end of the year, we’ll be a better team.”
The Knights’ surge has continued into the playoffs and, for the second year in a row, they have reached the state quarterfinal.
The Knights will be on the road against No. 7-seeded Canton at 7 p.m. Friday in the Class 4A quarterfinals.
Canton’s single-wing offense took a big hit in the regular season finale when running back Jace Chamberlin (1,284 yards, 21 TDs) sustained a season-ending MCL tear in his knee. That didn’t stop the Little Giants from a first-round playoff win over West Frankfort and a, 27-21 second-round upset of previously unbeaten Columbia.
Even without Chamberlain, Canton rolled to 294 rushing yards Saturday, including 171 on 21 carries by quarterback Clint Wells. Wells also completed six-of-10 passes for 191 yards and three TDs.
“They are very physical and quick off the ball. They get down hill as good as any teams I’ve seen,” Stiebel said. “I wouldn’t say they are speedy and not fast around the edges, but they are snot-knockers. It’s a physical bunch of kids from a tough area.”
Mater Dei at Canton
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium in Canton
Last Week: Mater Dei knocked off No. 3 Herrin, 47-14. Canton defeated No. 2 Columbia, 27-21.
Next Week: The winner advances to the Illinois 4A semifinal game against either No. 1 Althoff (11-0) or No. 5 Rochester (10-1), who play at 7 p.m. Saturday.
No. 11 MATER DEI KNIGHTS (7-4)
Coach: Jim Stiebel (seventh year, 57-22)
Rank: Votes in Illinois Class 4A
Playoff History: The Knights are in the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season and for the 23rd time since 1989. Their best finish was 2006, when they were class 4A runners up. They were semifinalists 1993, 2008 and last year, when they fell to Althoff. Mater Dei reached the quarterfinals in 2009, 2002, and 1992.
Scouting Report: Senior quarterback Colin Schuetz is not just an efficient passer (153-of-286, 1,083 yards, 26 TDs, five interceptions), he also is the team’s top ball carrier (146 carries, 888 yards, 11 TDs). Jake Wieter also is an effective ball carrier (153 carries, 767 yards, eight TDs). Jake Timmermann (46 catches, 587 yards, 10 TDs) and Luke Theising (45 catches, 577 yards, 11 TDs) are Schuetz’s favorite target. Linebacker Trever Johnson (75 tackles, five sacks, fumble, Int) and Nic Seelhoeffer (70 tackles, two sacks, one interception) lead the defense.
No. 7 CANTON LITTLE GIANTS (9-2)
Coach: Ryan Pearson (third year, 20-11)
Rank: 13th in final 4A poll
Playoff History: Canton has qualified for the playoffs 14 times, but just twice in the last 11 seasons. Little Giants are 8-13 overall in the postseason.
Scouting Report: Wells runs out of the wildcat formation (134 carries, 771 yards 10 TDs) and has been an effective passer (31-of-68 passes for 647 yards, nine TDs, three interceptions). Junior running back Drake Yerbic (85 carries, 527 yards, four TDs) is another offensive threat along with Lucas (19 catches, 417 yards, five TDs) at tight end. Lucas is also a force in the defensive backfield with 69 tackles and four picks. Canton’s other stars on an extremely aggressive defense are senior defensive end Nathan Miller (40 tackles, 18 tackles for loss), junior linebacker Ethan Magnuson (56 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) and junior linebacker Bryce Adams (35 tackles, nine tackles for loss). Canton finished second behind Washington in the Mid-Illini Conference.