Eleven weeks of football tends to wear on most teams, but the Mater Dei Knights and Taylorville Tornadoes may both be at their best when they meet in Illinois Class 4A state quarterfinals Saturday.
Mater Dei, 8-3 and the tournament’s No. 10 seed, started the season 1-2, including a sound beating at Althoff in the season’s third week.
Apart from a hiccup in Waterloo, the Knights have been perfect since, improving with each week as personnel fell into place and first-year quarterback Colin Schuetz grew more confident in his job.
“There is no doubt we are a different team than we were in third week of the season,” said Mater Dei seventh-year coach Jim Stiebel. “We have played a very, very difficult schedule and it’s forced us to identify our weaknesses and fix them. I’ve never had a team respond like this. They are confident and they are prepared for this week.”
It’s a little harder to find Taylorville’s peak since it remains unbeaten and comes out of a weaker Apollo Conference, where the bottom three teams have a combined seven wins.
But the Tornadoes have rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs, dispatching Mount Zion, 36-14, and knocking off No. 6 Herrin, 28-6.
They are super aggressive defensively. They fly to the ball and will have 11 guys around it on every tackle.
Jim Stiebel, Mater Dei head coach on Taylorville’s defense
“Our only returning starter is our left guard,” said Taylorville head coach Jeb Odam. “By design, we didn’t set goals for this team. With so many young guys, to set those kinds of lofty goals ahead of them doesn’t seen conducive to their growth. But week-by-week, they’ve kept working and gotten a little bit better, now here they are in the quarterfinals with big game ahead of them.”
SATURDAY’S GAME: No. 3 Taylorville (11-0) at No. 10 Mater Dei (8-3), 2 p.m.
NEXT WEEK: Winner advances to state 4A semifinal game between winner of No. 1 Althoff (11-0) and No. 4 Rochester (10-1).
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Mater Dei is making its 12th straight out of 24 total playoff appearances. It’s the first time the Knights have been to the quarterfinals since 2011. They were 4A state runners-up in 2006. Taylorville has earned 17 playoff berths, including three consecutive and last year’s 5A quarterfinal appearance. The Tornadoes have never placed.
The Tornadoes average 32 points per game, a surprise to some considering they had just one starter returning from last year’s 5A quarterfinalist.
Taylorville’s 11 wins this season represents the longest winning streak in school history.
Taylorville still is not quite as explosive offensively as Mater Dei.
The quarterback, senior Blake Heimsness, is in his first year under center at varsity. While he’s not the play maker Schuetz is, “he’s got a little wiggle in his game,” Odam says.
Heimsness has completed 55 percent of 163 pass attempts for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns to four different receivers. He’s also the team’s second leading rusher with 747 yards and 14 scores.
“The best word to describe our offense is ‘efficient,’” Odam said. “Blake is a 6-2, 200-pound kid who doesn’t move like Schuetz. He can hurt you in small ways and he doesn’t blow you away. But all of the sudden the game is over and you look up and see he’s passed for 200-300 yards.”
Senior Tyler Gist otherwise anchors the running game with 957 yards on 173 attempts and 12 touchdowns. Cole Owens is the top receiver with 30 catches for 617 yards. He, Jimmy Barry (19 catches for 341 yards), and DeShawn Hammers (16 for 315) have four touchdown receptions each.
Taylorville’s calling card, however, is its defense, which Stiebel described in three words — “physical, physical, physical.”
The Tornadoes allow an average of just 10.7 points per game. Led by linebacker Travis Winans, four players have more than 100 tackles and two others have 90 or more.
I don't know that we can contain that, but we have to keep tabs on him and make sure if he's going to beat us it's with his arm and not his feet.
Jeb Odam, Taylorville coach on stopping Mater Dei quarterback Colin Schuetz
As a team, Taylorville has forced 25 turnovers, including Barry’s five interceptions.
“What they tell you about being aggressive and finishing tackles is what shows up on film,” Stiebel said. “They are super aggressive defensively. They fly to the ball and will have 11 guys around it on every tackle.”
Scouting Mater Dei
The offense has more than one weapon, but its ability to run and be explosive starts with Schuetz, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound quarterback who runs like a fullback and passes with uncommon efficiency.
He’s completed 56 percent of 286 attempts for 2,515 yards and 27 touchdown passes. He’s also rushed for 449 yards and 14 touchdowns.
2010 Last time Mater Dei advanced to a playoff quarterfinal
“I don’t know that we can contain that, but we have to keep tabs on him and make sure if he’s going to beat us it’s with his arm and not his feet,” Odam said. “If you let him out in space, he can really hurt you.”
Brendan Timmerman is a weapon lined up as a wide receiver or in the backfield as a ball carrier. He has 60 catches for 966 yards and 11 scores. He also leads the team with 593 rushing yards on 67 attempts, a 8.9 yard average.
Brady Rakers (101 rush, 540 yards, 8 TD), Dawson Ratermann (33 rush, 225 yards, 5.1 yards per carry), Josh Haberer (35 catches, 483 yards) and Blake Langenhorst (20 catch, 437 yards, 4 TD) also can play a factor.
Where the Knights have shown the most growth since week 3, Stiebel says, is on the defensive side of the ball.
“Finding the right 11 guys and improving the speed on our defense was important,” he said. “That’s where we got much better.”
Sam Krebs leads the Knights with 81 tackles and eight sacks. Lucas Theising has four fumble recoveries to go with his 57 tackles, and Peyton Becker has four of Mater Dei’s 13 pass interceptions.