With the road taken, not too many people outside of Momence likely expected the school's football team to still be alive in the Class 2A playoffs.
Yet that's where the Redskins find themselves heading into the quarterfinal round. They've posted a pair of road victories, and now will host Newman on Saturday. The winner moves on to the semifinals, against either Mercer County or Farmington.
"They're a typical great team here in the quarterfinals," Newman coach Mike Papoccia said when asked about Momence. "You don't get a weak sister here, and these guys certainly aren't."
The playoff ride was expected to be a short one for Momence (8-3), given that it started with a trip to Clifton Central. Clifton (9-1) cruised through the regular season, outscoring opponents 355-38 along the way. It included a 21-0 blanking of Momence in Week 9.
A rematch came in the first round of the playoffs, again at Clifton, but the Redskins pulled off a 13-6 upset. It was the second year in a row the teams met in Week 9, then again in the first round of the playoffs. Clifton won both in 2012, by a combined score of 69-13.
"That was a big win for our program," Momence coach Matt Fox said. "We didn't play our absolute best in Week 9 against Clifton, but we had a week to watch some film and shore some things up, and we really executed in the second game. We did some things offensively that we didn't do in the first game, and defensively, we really played a great game. It was probably our best defensive game of the year."
Momence went on the road again last week in the second round of the playoffs, this time to Spring Valley to battle Hall. The Redskins earned their second straight road playoff win, 21-13 against the Red Devils.
"That game was all about our seniors," Fox said. "They've set a great example all year, when things are going well for us, and especially when things aren't going so well. It's not easy to win road playoff games, but we just stayed together and got that one done."
"I think Momence is really on a roll," Papoccia said. "You could see the difference between Week 9 and Week 10. They just believe. They went out and played two great games. They're on a roll, and we've got a monumental task ahead of us."
Papoccia described Momence as a 50-50 team, meaning it has great balance between the run and pass. Statistics bear that out.
Junior quarterback Aaron Cantwell (6-foot-5, 216 pounds) has completed 152 of 261 passes for 2,177 yards and 26 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. His top targets are sophomore wide receiver Zach Hamman (52 receptions, 747 yards, 8 TDs) and senior wide receiver Lawrence Blake (36-420, 5 TDs).
Leading the running attack is junior Leanthony Reasnover, a 5-9, 186-pounder who has 201 carries for 1,372 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's filling the shoes of the graduated DeAndre Wright, a 3-year standout who finished his career with more than 6,000 yards and 99 touchdowns. Wright now attends Northern Illinois, but does not play football.
"We're a lot more balanced this year than we have been, because the offense used to revolve around getting the ball to DeAndre," Fox said. "We don't have that one absolute superstar, but we've got some really nice players, and we can keep a defense honest."
The leader on defense is junior linebacker Shawn Underwood (5-10, 222), who has 102 tackles, and senior linebacker Aaron Cavender (6-2, 178), who has 78. The Redskins have allowed an average of 14.4 points per game, while scoring 26.3 per contest.
Momence finished third in the Sangamon Valley Conference, behind Clifton Central and St. Joseph-Ogden. Two of the Redskins' three losses were to those teams, and the other was to Oregon, 28-21 in the season opener.
This will be the first meeting between Momence and Newman, though the Comets are familiar with teams in the Sangamon Valley. They beat Paxton-Buckley-Loda 57-14 in the first round of the 1997 2A playoffs; lost to Iroquois West 22-18 in the quarterfinals of the 2003 2A playoffs; and beat Clifton Central 40-6 in the first round of the 2011 2A playoffs.
Much like Momence, Newman (10-1) is on a roll. The Comets fell to 3A playoff team Rockridge in the opener, but have been dominant in most of the games since then. They have outscored Fieldcrest and Eastland-Pearl City, teams with a combined record of 18-1 at the time of their meeting, by a combined 76-12 in the first two playoff rounds.
"We haven't put a full game together yet," Papoccia said, "but we came close against Fieldcrest. Last week, I thought we played good two-thirds of the game, but EPC is a tough, physical team. I'm just glad our kids hung in there. They did a great job."
Jake Snow, who has 1,419 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns, gets the Newman headlines, but he has plenty of help. Brady Rude, Elliot Jensen, Dillan Heffelfinger and Mac Olson are all capable backs; A.J. Sharp provides a steady hand at quarterback; and Shayne Allen is a red zone threat at wide receiver.
The core of the team, however, is a line that wears teams out on both sides of the ball. It was a big factor in Newman's 35-12 win over a physically-imposing bunch from EPC last week.
"Their line was pretty good," junior tackle Jacob Barnes said, "but our line, I'd say we're a very, very solid line. We did dominate up front, but it was one of the tougher games we've had. I couldn't be any prouder of our line."
Newman at Momence
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Momence H.S.
Radio: 102.7 FM
Twitter: Dan Woessner (@Dan Woessner)