A year ago, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School’s football team got a postseason opportunity to avenge a Week 3 loss to El Paso-Gridley. The Falcons took advantage, winning 35-7 in the first round of the playoffs.
Saturday, EPG will seek some payback when the Heart of Illinois Conference rivals meet in a 2 p.m. Class 2A quarterfinal game at Gibson City.
“They’re coming here looking for some revenge,” GCMS coach Mike Allen said.
In Week 3 this season, GCMS started fast and rolled to a 45-18 victory at El Paso, part of a 2-4 start for EPG. The Titans have rebounded with five straight wins, including the first two playoff victories since the merger of El Paso and Gridley.
“Our kids were younger at the beginning of the year and hopefully they are growing up,” EPG coach Steve Rigsby said. “We definitely feel we’re much better prepared to play the style of play they want to play than we were earlier in the year.
“We’ve improved, but it’s certainly still a challenge.”
Second-seeded GCMS is 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the 2A state poll. No. 14 seed EPG is 7-4 after knocking off state-ranked Rockridge (29-26) and Knoxville (28-22) in the first two rounds.
The game features two of the area’s top running backs in GCMS senior Mitch McNutt and El Paso-Gridley junior Ryne Faulk.
McNutt has run for 1,322 yards on 120 carries, an 11.2 average, while scoring 27 touchdowns. Faulk has piled up 1,595 rushing yards, averaged 6.4 per carry and scored 25 touchdowns (19 rushing, 6 receiving).
The 6-foot, 220-pound McNutt had only 15 second-half carries (none in the fourth quarter) all season until last week’s 24-6 win at West Carroll. His backfield mate, junior Jared Trantina (719 yards, 14 TDs), had only 16 second-half attempts prior to last week.
“Their bodies are healthy and fresh,” Allen said. “We’re excited to be healthy going into the quarterfinals.”
Rigsby said EPG also is as healthy as it has been all year. In the first meeting, Titans fullback/linebacker Dylan Reeves had an ankle injury and played only sparingly on defense.
“He’s a big part of our defense now,” Rigsby said. “Our kids are really excited to be on this journey. Sitting at 2-4, not many people believed we could be in this position, me included to be honest.”
Reeves, a 5-9, 200-pounder, is relishing the run, saying, “No one expected us to win that game (against Knoxville).”
“I don’t think we were all that prepared at the start of the season,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot better as the season’s gone on. We’ve had some younger kids playing defense and they’re starting to get the hang of it.”
Testing the EPG defense will be GCMS junior quarterback Nathan Garard, who has complemented the strong rushing attack with 859 yards passing and 13 touchdowns.
Six-four junior Ryland Holt has 14 catches for 371 yards and a school-record nine TDs. Tight end Bryce Barnes adds 12 catches for 269 yards and three scores.
“We need to keep on doing what we're doing," Holt said. "It’s really hard to beat a team twice. You have to make sure you’re really sound with your fundamentals and play hard. They are going to be fired up, so we have to make sure we match their energy.”
EPG senior Jarrin Landrus also has been effective through the air with 1,374 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’ll be facing the state’s stingiest defense. GCMS has allowed only 66 points and is led by Luke Freehill’s 82 tackles.
“Coach (Chad) Augspurger has those guys prepared every game,” Allen said of his defensive coordinator. “On film what we’ve seen (from EPG) is they’re playing very aggressive and with a lot of confidence.
“Faulk is running very well, they’re blocking well and their defense is smothering right now. We’ll have to play a lot better than we did the first game.”
The winner meets either top-seeded Sterling Newman (11-0) or fourth-seeded Orion (9-2) in next week’s semifinals.