A trip to the playoffs has been standard operating procedure for the Eastland-Pearl City Wildcatz football team for quite some time. But, as it seems to every year, the road to return will once again be fraught with peril.
The Wildcatz have played in the postseason 7 consecutive years and in 12 of the last 13 seasons, but seventh-year coach Randy Asche knows they’ll have their hands full if they want to keep that streak alive next fall.
“We have a tough schedule, and the conference is anybody’s to take,” Asche said. “The great programs just keep coming at us, and now we have a target on our backs after winning conference last year.
“We snuck up on a few teams last year, I think, groups that had beaten our kids as sophomores who didn’t expect us to be as good as we were. We’re not going to be able to do that this time.”
E-PC plays four playoff teams from 2013, but three of those games are on the road: Week 2 at Monmouth-Roseville, Week 5 at Lena-Winslow, and Week 9 at Forreston, a team that was in the NUIC Northwest title hunt all year before making a run to the state quarterfinals.
Throw in a Dakota team that will be hungry after a rare 4-5 season in 2012 in Week 3, and playoff-qualifier Galena the next Friday at home, and the odds stack up pretty quickly against the ’Catz.
“I think the conference is better all the way across; even West Carroll and Polo [who were both 3-6 last year] are looking really strong,” Asche said. “It’s a wide-open race, and I’d like to think we’ve got a shot at it, but if we start trying to live on last year, it’s going to be a long year for us.
“I think it will be important how we start. If we can get back into the swing of things quickly and build some confidence during that tough stretch in the first half of the schedule, that’ll help us down the road.”
E-PC lost some talented contributors from last year, and Asche knows they will be tough to replace. But with a strong nucleus, he anticipates the ’Catz filling those roles by committee.
As the players start to pick up the pace and intensity of their workouts, Asche believes this team will improve in the key areas that have “been taken advantage of” recently in the playoffs. The Wildcatz haven’t made it past the second round since 2004, a trend Asche believes can be turned around, if this year’s senior leadership steps up and takes hold.
“A lot of teams have a lot back, and by the end of the year, that adds up,” Asche said. “But we expect a lot out of a good group of seniors, and once they fully commit to what we ask as the season gets closer, things will start to come around.”
West Carroll will visit the Wildcatz in Week 1, and the Thunder are in the position to surprise some people in 2013. After winning the sophomore conference title last year, those soon-to-be juniors will join a strong core of returning varsity players to fill out a talented roster for third-year coach Mike Bicksler.
Like E-PC, the Thunder will run the gauntlet early in the season. After the Wildcatz come East Dubuque at home, then road games against a pair of playoff teams in Forreston and Lena-Winslow in weeks 3 and 4. That’s four of the five playoff teams on West Carroll’s schedule – Galena comes to Savanna in Week 8 – right off the bat.
The reward for that tough opening month is Dakota at home in Week 5, the opener of a stretch of three home games in the final 5 weeks of the season. Like the Wildcatz, a strong start will be important for the Thunder, and could set the table for good things to come in the stretch run.
Coming up Monday
• SVM takes a look at the NUIC Upstate