In recent seasons, the Eastland-Pearl City Wildcatz have often encountered a Three Rivers team early in their playoff journey.
Things likely won’t be any different this year.
EPC received the top seed in its Class 2A quadrant during the IHSA playoff pairings show Saturday night, and could potentially clash with the Newman Comets in the second round.
“We kind of expected it,” EPC coach Randy Asche said. “We ran a lot of different scenarios, thinking maybe we could get away from it, but virtually every one we ran, Newman kept popping up.
“The Three Rivers has bitten us a lot, but we’ve got to take care of business against Luther North first. There are no assurances, so we’ve got to buckle down, clean some things up and let the chips fall where they may.”
EPC lost to Morrison three straight years (2009-2011) in the second round. Last year, the Wildcatz lost a first-round game to Orion, who joined the expanded Three Rivers Conference this fall.
While the Wildcatz will host their first-round opponent, Newman will hit the road for its first-round contest.
The fifth-seeded Comets will travel to Minonk to play No. 4 Fieldcrest, most likely Saturday.
Newman coach Mike Papoccia is unfamiliar with Fieldcrest, though he remembers the Knights’ coach, Nate Lorton, as a fullback from the Hardin-Calhoun team the Comets played in the 1993 playoffs. Principal William Lapp is also familiar, as he used to coach at Carthage and has known Papoccia for years.
But as always, Papoccia is glad to see some new faces come playoff time, and he and his coaches expected to hit the road in their opener.
“It’s a different team for us, and what more can you ask for?” Papoccia said. “It’s about the journey for us, and the first phase of it is the chance to travel and play a very good football team.
“We’ve already talked to the kids about how the reward for a win on the road would be a home game in the second round, with more marbles on the table.”
Newman’s Three Rivers North brethren in Erie and Prophetstown feel the same was as Papoccia. The Panthers will host a playoff game for the first time in program history, and couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s not another Three Rivers team that will visit Wayne Hein Field.
Fourth-seeded Erie-Prophetstown will host No. 13 River Valley, as the northern half of the Class 3A bracket was seeded 1 through 16 instead of in two eight-team quadrants.
“In all honesty, we’re so excited not to play someone in our own conference,” coach Chuck Milem said. “It’s somebody different, and we could care less who it was. It’s a breath of fresh air, and to be at home on top of that is pretty cool, just really exciting for the kids and our communities. We’re just elated to be in the playoffs again, and we’re not ready to stop this journey yet.”
Like Milem, Oregon coach John Bothe was unsurprised that the northern half of the 3A bracket wasn’t split into two eight-team quadrants. And like Papoccia, the Hawks’ veteran head man knew that no matter what their draw, it would be full of powerhouse teams.
Oregon, whose 49 playoff points were the second-most among the 58 teams in the state that finished 5-4, was seeded 15th, and will travel to second-seeded Wilmington in the first round. A win would mean a matchup with either Immaculate Conception or Aurora Christian in the second round.
“It’s a heavyweight segment of a loaded bracket, and that’s not a shock,” Bothe said. “But the thing is, we’d rather be in the playoffs with a tough road ahead of us than be turning in our equipment Monday.”
No. 5 Newman (8-1) at No. 4 Fieldcrest (8-1)
No. 8 Luther North (5-4) at No. 1 Eastland-Pearl City (9-0)
No. 15 Oregon (5-4) at No. 2 Wilmington (9-0)
No. 13 River Valley (6-3) at No. 4 Erie-Prophetstown (7-2)