To most outside of the Columbia High School football program, the Eagles’ 35-6 win over the Salem Wildcats in early September may have seemed like a-run-of-the-mill victory on the way to a 6-0 start to the season.
To senior Eagles senior defensive end Matt Muehlher it was a turning point.
“We ended up winning big, but to start the game we were all really flat,’’ Muehlher recalled recently, “They weren’t scoring but they were moving the football on us pretty well between the 20’s.
“I remember at halftime, Coach (Scott) Horner just said ‘we just can’t have this.’ From that point forward everybody came to practice working hard. It was right then I think that for a lot of us that we realized that we could really do something if we all worked hard.’’
Ranked among the top 10 Class 4A teams in the state for much of the year, the Eagles finished 8-3, tied for the Cahokia Conference championship with Freeburg and Central and advanced to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs before losing to Taylorville.
And Muehlher, a lightning quick 6-foot-3 215-pound defensive end was a major factor in the Eagles’ success.
Voted by area coaches as the Belleville News-Democrat small school co-defensive player of the year, Muehlher finished the season with 76 tackles including 53 solos. He also had three quarterback sacks. Better still, says Horner, Muehler matured into a leader both on and off the football field.
“Matt was one of our three captains and as that he did exactly what your want your senior leaders and captains to do the entire year,’’ Horner said. “He’s very deserving of the recognition he gets beyond the football field. He’s a great student and he’s well respected by the students and his teachers.
“He’s the kid of student-athlete that you love having in your program because of how he is thought of inside the building.’’
A lifelong Eagle who remembers attending games when he was younger, Muehlher saw part-time duty as a sophomore, making 17 tackles for Columbia which finished 10-1.
But the 2017 season was a learning experience for both Muehlher and the Eagles, who qualified for the postseason, but finished only 5-5. Muehlher and his teammates were determined not to have a repeat this year.
“My junior year we worked, but the closeness just wasn’t there. There were some guys who just didn’t get along very well. This summer I think we all realized that we just didn’t play very well last year,’’ Muehlher said. “This year we all just got along really well. We all had the same goals in mind and we realized that in order for us to achieve them that everybody just had to do their jobs.’’
And to do his job better, Muelher knew he had to be a better leader his senior season. His quest to do just that began last winter when he had a meeting with Horner.
“I remember way back last January when coach Horner and I had a talk about what I needed to improve on. I felt like I got a lot better on my hand usage and getting down the line and get around better,’’ Muehlher said. “But not only did I feel that physically I was a better football player, but I also felt I improved a lot mentally. My junior year I wasn’t vocal. I was one of those guys who would lead more by example.
“This season I was able to be more vocal. ... If there was a situation where we had some cultural problems, I was able to call my teammates out and tell them that we just can’t have that.’’
Although, he has the the size, strength and intelligence to play college football, Muehlher has decided to concentrate on academics in college. With a long-term goal of becoming a civil engineer, Muehlher is considering Missouri S and T University and the University of Minnesota.
“I am not going to play college football. I looked at some small schools and went to a couple of camps, but I’m going to study engineering. I w ant to be a civil engineer and I know how difficult the academics are for that,’’ Muehlher said. “ I just decided to concentrate on school. I didn’t want to have too much on my plate at once. Education has always been No. 1 for me and sports has been second.’’