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A mix of rain and snow made for muddy, sloppy conditions last year when Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School's football team fought past Sterling Newman in a Class 2A state semifinal at Gibson City.

The teams slugged it out in a defensive battle won by GCMS, 14-8.

The rematch comes Saturday in the quarterfinals and this much is certain: there will be no mud. Snow and temperature in the 20s are possible, but no danger of mud on the artificial turf at Sterling High School. Traction figures to be better in the 6 p.m. contest than in last year's mud bowl.

"That's always nice to know that you don't have to worry too much about the elements as far as the footing goes," 39th-year Newman coach Mike Papoccia said. "But both teams play in both situations. You really can't use that for an excuse."

GCMS coach Mike Allen agreed conditions should be more palatable, saying with a smile, "If 23 degrees and maybe snow are good conditions."

Falcons senior standout Jared Trantina welcomes the venue, even if it means traveling three hours.

"It's going to be nice playing up there on the turf," he said. "There was some talk afterward (last year) about the weather not being good. It will be nice to go up there and leave no doubt."

Defending 2A state champion GCMS (11-0) has a 25-game win streak. The Falcons are seeded No. 1 and ranked second in the 2A state poll.

They have averaged 49.9 points per game to 45.9 for fifth-seeded and No. 5-ranked Newman (10-1). Despite those lofty numbers, Papoccia expects a low-scoring game.

Here's why: GCMS has allowed a mere 3.4 points per game and Newman 8.1.

"Both teams have really good defenses," Papoccia said. "Field position will be huge, just like it was last year. I think the special teams and turnovers will probably be the deciding factor. It should be a dandy."

GCMS' defense is led by Hayden Workman's 71 tackles. Josh Bleich has added 58, with Austin Spiller (51) and Bryce Barnes (45) not far behind. 

Spiller has four interceptions and Keegan Kutemeier three for defensive coordinator Chad Augspurger's stellar unit.

"Since he's been here our defense has been outstanding," Allen said. "It's no secret on that. Our defense is solid, our offense is playing very well. The kids are listening to what we tell them. We've had a great time with them."

The primary challenge defensively will be slowing Newman's wishbone running attack. The Comets rushed for 360 yards in last week's 46-14 win over Illini West at Carthage. They have run for 3,830 yards, 62 touchdowns and 8.6 yards per carry.

Chase Graham, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior, had 129 yards and three TDs last week in just seven attempts. The leading rusher is 6-1, 225-pound fullback Luke Olson with 1,008 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Halfback Connor McBride is close behind (968 yards, 15 TDs), while quarterback Brycen Bartel has thrown only 31 passes, completing 13 for 226 yards and two TDs.

"Last year they had a lot of speed. They still have a lot of speed, but their size is so much bigger this year," Allen said. "They're big boys with a big line in front of them."

Papoccia agreed the Comets have "a little more meat back there."

"They are really starting to come into their own, as is the whole team," he said. "We're really starting to gel and get things done the way we should. We're happy with how we're playing."

Newman's loss was 20-17 in week three to Orion (11-0), the No. 2 seed which plays at home Saturday vs. Eastland-Pearl City.

A Comets' defense led by Graham at linebacker (105 tackles, seven sacks) will be tested by a GCMS offense fueled by Trantina's 1,431 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Nathan Garard has thrown for 919 yards and 11 TDs.

The Falcons' 31-7 second-round win last week was the first game all season the regulars played a full game.

"(Newman) is going to have that motivation from coming here last year and getting beat," Allen said. "Hopefully our guys can match that and really take a lot of pride in what they do going up there."

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Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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