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St. Joseph-Ogden football made the playoffs for the 26th straight season last year.
But the Spartans lost in the first round of the Class 3A postseason for the first time since 2011, albeit to the eventual state champion in IC Catholic, and ended the season with a 5-5 record.
Here’s a look at the upcoming 2017 schedule for the Spartans, who will be guided this season by second-year head coach Shawn Skinner as SJO starts play in the new Illini Prairie Conference — five former Okaw Valley Conference schools and five former Corn Belt Conference schools joining forces — and tries to keep their area-best playoff streak intact, with running back Dwight Colvin, linebacker Jason Bowman and wide receiver/defensive back Bryce Haake among key returnees expected to lead the way.

Week 1
7 p.m., Aug. 25
St. Thomas More at SJO
The skinny: The long-time rivals, dating back to their time in the Sangamon Valley Conference and Okaw Valley Conference, will get the season started off right when SJO hosts the Sabers in the season opener for both teams. STM pulled off a close 27-26 win in last season’s meeting between the two teams in Champaign.
Breaking down STM: The Sabers are coming off the deepest run in school history after they advanced to the Class 2A state quarterfinals last season. STM, however, will have to replace do-everything quarterback DJ Lee, who is off to play college football at Idaho, along with several other key contributors. STM will also have a new coach roaming the sidelines after Dan Hennessey, the only coach the Sabers have ever known, retired after 16 seasons. Their new coach is one familiar to area football fans. Nathan Watson, the former coach at Arcola and Urbana, will try to put STM back in the playoffs for the second straight season.

Week 2
7 p.m., Sept. 1
SJO at Rantoul
The skinny: In the three seasons the two teams met as Okaw Valley Conference foes, SJO won all three games by a combined score of 120-26, including a 44-0 win last season in St. Joseph.  Breaking down Rantoul: The Eagles will try to rebound from an 0-9 season a year ago as new coach Tom Hess takes over. Rantoul is always a team with plenty of athletes, but football success hasn’t exactly followed. At least not recently. The Eagles are trying to get back to the playoffs this season for the first time since 2005.

Week 3
7 p.m., Sept. 8
Bloomington Central Catholic at SJO
The skinny: The two programs met during the 2015 playoffs, with the Spartans earning a 26-21 road win in the Class 3A state quarterfinals. Most of the key contributors on both teams are gone, but this is arguably a game where both teams could come in with unbeaten records.
Breaking down BCC: The Saints, coached by Mike Moews, the brother of long-time BCC coach Bobby Moes, are one of the five former Corn Belt teams SJO now calls a conference opponent. BCC made the Class 3A playoffs last season, but like SJO, lost in the first round. The Saints — who return quarterback and kicker Matt Moews to spearhead the offense — are a perennial playoff contender and enter the 2017 season with 13 straight postseason appearances.

Week 4
7 p.m., Sept. 15
SJO at Unity
The skinny: No love lost between these two rivals. Two of the area’s best small-school programs in the last two decades will renew their latest meeting at Hicks Field in Tolono, the place where the Rockets have won the last two games in the series: 26-8 last regular season and 30-8 in the 2015 Class 3A state semifinals.
Breaking down Unity: Scott Hamilton is the dean of Illini Prairie Conference coaches, and the recent inductee into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame has overseen the transformation of Unity into an area power in his 23 seasons at the helm, compiling a 222-55 record and 23 straight playoff appearances. With quarterback Steven Migut and running back Keaton Eckstein returning, the Rockets, coming off an appearance in last year’s 3A state quarterfinals, should once again be contenders to go on a deep playoff run.

Please see
FOOTBALL, B3

Week 5
7 p.m., Sept. 22
Pontiac at SJO
The skinny: Once again, a game that, in the past would have been considered a nonconference game, but now the Indians are league foes with SJO after joining the Illini Prairie from the Corn Belt. Two tradition-rich programs are separated by 80 miles.
Breaking down Pontiac: For much of the last decade, along with the 1990s, the Indians were a playoff power, winning a 1993 Class 3A state title and placing second in state in 5A in 2002. State quarterfinal trips in 2007 (5A) and 2010 (4A) ensued, but no playoff victories since 2010 and only two trips to the postseason. Pontiac, which starts its fourth year with former Indians standout Buck Casson on the sidelines, missed out last year after going 4-5, but ended the season on somewhat of a high note, winning three of its last four games after starting out 1-4.

Week 6
7 p.m., Sept. 29
SJO at Prairie Central
The skinny: This game may count as a league game now, but SJO is familiar with Prairie Central from the Hawks’ days in the Corn Belt. The two schools have met each of the last three seasons in the regular season finale, with SJO winning each time, including last year’s 42-22 victory in St. Joseph that clinched a playoff spot for the Spartans.
Breaking down Prairie Central: The Hawks finished 2-7 last season under Kirk Brandenburg, the program’s third head coach in the last three seasons. Brandenburg is back for a second season, trying to lead the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. He’ll have some help with talented dual-threat quarterback Billy Printz, a first team All-Corn Bel selection a year ago, back to run the offense.

Week 7
7 p.m, Oct. 6
Illinois Valley Central at SJO
The skinny: Just the travel alone when these two schools meet will make it feel like a nonconference game. But Illinois Valley Central, located in Chillicothe, which is roughly 120 miles from SJO, does sport one of the coolest nicknames in the state: the Grey Ghosts.
Breaking down IVC: Despite the well-known nickname, Illinois Valley Central isn’t exactly well-known for its long-standing football success. But IVC is coming off a Class 4A playoff appearance last season after finishing the regular season 5-4 before losing 42-0 to Herscher in the first round of the playoffs, the school’s eight appearance, which have all happened this century. Veteran coach Tim Heinz is back for his 14th season on the sidelines, and he sports a hearty 71-57 record with the Grey Ghosts, who made the playoffs each season from 2005 to 2010, advancing to the second round in both 2007 and 2010.

Week 8
7 p.m., Oct. 13
Olympia at SJO
The skinny: Either way, the Spartans will win on this night. That’s because Olympia’s nickname is the same as the one SJO has. It’ll be an emotional night in St. Joseph as SJO hosts senior night activities against the former Corn Belt school.
Breaking down Olympia: Sixth-year coach Mike Rathbun orchestrated a turnaround for the Spartans during the 2014 season, helping Olympia finish 6-3 in the regular season and advance to the Class 4A playoffs, the school’s first postseason berth since 2002. But the last two seasons have produced a 3-15 record, including an 0-9 mark last season that saw Olympia get outscored 341-84.

Week 9
7 p.m., Oct. 20
SJO at Monticello
The skinny: The three seasons the two teams clashed in Okaw Valley Conference play was always highly-anticipated. SJO will try to avenge last season’s 44-22 loss against the Sages in St. Joseph, snapping a three-game losing streak Monticello had against SJO, which included a 2014 first-round playoff win by the Spartans.
Breaking down Monticello: The Sages are coming off one of the best seasons in program history, having completed a perfect 9-0 regular season last year before falling 48-6 to eventual state champion IC Catholic in the Class 3A state semifinals. Veteran coach Cully Welter has guided the Sages — who will need to replace quarterback Caleb Hanson and his top two receivers in Nathan Graham and Isiah Florey, but return linebacker Nathan Harman and running back Lucas Lieb, among others — to eight playoff appearances in his eight seasons thus far at the Piatt County school.

Around the league
A week-by-week look at who’s playing who in the brand-new Illini Prairie Conference:

Week 1
Aug. 25
Bloomington Central at Pontiac, 7 p.m.
Illinois Valley Central at Unity, 7 p.m.
Monticello at Olympia, 7 p.m.
Rantoul at Prairie Central, 7 p.m.
St. Thomas More at St. Joseph-Ogden, 7 p.m.

Week 2
Sept. 1
Monticello at Illinois Valley Central, 7 p.m.
Olympia at St. Thomas More, 7 p.m.
Pontiac at Unity, 7 p.m.
Prairie Central at Bloomington Central Catholic, 7 p.m.
St. Joseph-Ogden at Rantoul, 7 p.m.

Week 3
Sept. 8
Bloomington Central Catholic at St. Joseph-Ogden, 7 p.m.
Illinois Valley Central at Pontiac, 7 p.m.
Rantoul at Olympia, 7 p.m.
St. Thomas More at Monticello, 7 p.m.
Unity at Prairie Central, 7 p.m.

Week 4
Sept. 15
Monticello at Rantoul, 7 p.m.
Olympia at Bloomington Central Catholic, 7 p.m.
Prairie Central at Pontiac, 7 p.m.
St. Joseph-Ogden at Unity, 7 p.m.
St. Thomas More at Illinois Valley Central, 7 p.m.

Week 5
Sept. 22
Bloomington Central Catholic at Monticello, 7 p.m.
Illinois Valley Central at Prairie Central, 7:30 p.m.
Pontiac at St. Joseph-Ogden, 7 p.m.
Rantoul at St. Thomas More, 7 p.m.
Unity at Olympia, 7 p.m.

Week 6
Sept. 29
Monticello at Unity, 7 p.m.
Olympia at Pontiac, 7 p.m.
Rantoul at Illinois Valley Central, 7 p.m.
St. Joseph-Ogden at Prairie Central, 7 p.m.
St. Thomas More at Bloomington Central Catholic, 7 p.m.

Week 7
Oct. 6
Bloomington Central Catholic at Rantoul, 7 p.m.
Illinois Valley Central at St. Joseph-Ogden, 7 p.m.
Pontiac at Monticello, 7 p.m.
Prairie Central at Olympia, 7 p.m.
Unity at St. Thomas More, 7 p.m.

Week 8
Oct. 13
Bloomington Central Catholic at Illinois Valley Central, 7 p.m.
Monticello at Prairie Central, 7 p.m.
Olympia at St. Joseph-Ogden, 7 p.m.
Rantoul at Unity, 7 p.m.
St. Thomas More at Pontiac, 7 p.m.

Week 9
Oct. 20
Illinois Valley Central at Olympia, 7:30 p.m.
Pontiac at Rantoul, 7 p.m.
Prairie Central at St. Thomas More, 7 p.m.
St. Joseph-Ogden at Monticello, 7 p.m.
Unity at Bloomington Central Catholic, 7 p.m.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports

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