EL PASO — Heading into October, El Paso-Gridley High School's football team had just two victories. Opponents had averaged more than 40 points in the Titans' four losses.
Something had to change. Something did.
“At that point, we made a decision that we had to step up. We had to keep going; we wanted to make it to the playoffs,” said senior lineman Corbin Heiken. “We just had that mentality, practiced hard and played hard, and went 1-0 each week.”
EPG's defense has blossomed over the past five weeks, allowing just less than 17 points per contest and propelling the Titans to 7-4 and into the Class 2A quarterfinals, where they will meet unbeaten Heart of Illinois Conference rival GCMS in a 2 p.m. game Saturday at Gibson City.
“It’s been real exciting. No one expected us to do it, so we came out and did what we had to do,” said senior linebacker Dylan Reeves. “We got a lot better throughout the year. We started playing as a team better, tackling as a team.”
The Titans’ defense has shown its mettle in close games recently with their last three victories coming by a total of 12 points. A 26-23 triumph at Eureka closed the regular season, leading to a 29-26 win at Rockridge and last week's 28-22 triumph over Knoxville – the first postseason wins in the program’s 14-year existence.
“It’s like a dream, so surreal. If you were to ask anyone in the community if we would make it this far, they wouldn’t believe us,” said Heiken. “But everyone on this field knows that we have the potential to do it and we’re doing it.”
“It seems like every time we need a stop, those guys make a stop,” EPG coach Steve Rigsby said of his defenders. “We’re not lights-out defensively and we’re not shutting people out or playing 9-7 games. But we’re doing what we have to on that side of the ball.”
Rigsby gives some of the credit for the turnaround to some personnel changes, particularly moving senior Tony Sleevar from a backup running back to a speed option on the defensive line.
“I’m flexible wherever they want me. Anywhere they put me, I just want to be on the field and that’s all,” said Sleevar. “Coach tells me to do something, I try my butt off to do it and that’s what it is. That’s what football is supposed to do; you’re not supposed to think, you’re just supposed to do.”
Rigsby and his staff also have altered formations, switching from a predominantly three-man front early in the season to four- and five-man lines. But he said the main reason for the improvement has been the players’ growth.
“They’ve done a nice job getting better in terms of practice time. We knew going into the season that we weren’t necessarily young but we had a lot of kids that were inexperienced on that side of the ball,” he said.
“We got banged up at linebacker early in the year. We had a couple linebackers not playing on and off through the third week of the season. We feel like we’ve gotten better in that area as we’ve gotten healthier and the guys around them have gotten some experience.”
Standout running back Ryne Faulk also is the top tackler with 89, followed by Reeves at 75 and Drew Gilbert at 69 with Heiken, Brock Starkey and Sleevar all over 50. Heiken has registered 9½ tackles for loss while Gilbert and Starkey each have nine.
“We’re just meshing really well; we came together as a team, as brothers,” said Heiken.
The success of the EPG running game also has played a key role in keeping the defense fresh.
“That’s the other thing we’ve done a lot better lately is grind the ball out a bit. We’re having some six, seven, eight minute drives,” said Rigsby. “We’ve been way better in that area, and in turn it helps our defense be on the field less.”
Still, the Titans know they face a formidable challenge in GCMS. the Falcons handed EPG a 45-18 defeat in Week 3 and on average have outscored their opponents 45.3-6.0.
“We’ve got step it and make sure we do everything right,” said Sleevar. “We have to put all people on the ball and watch the ball more often. We have to work as hard as we can as a team and a family.
“We’ve just got to bring it to them. That’s all I can really say.”