There was no rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp or blowing out candles involved, but the Newman football team had its biggest wish granted.
The Comets are getting another shot at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, this time in the Class 2A playoff quarterfinals on Saturday at Roscoe Eades Stadium. Game time is 6 p.m.
It will be a rematch of a 2017 semifinal won by the Falcons, 14-8, in a bitterly fought contest in Gibson City. GCMS went on to win a state title the following week, beating Maroa-
Forsyth 38-32 in DeKalb.
Both teams have cruised through two playoff games thus far this season, and for Newman, when a 46-14 demolition of previously undefeated Illini West was completed last Saturday afternoon in Carthage, it was clear what was ahead.
“As soon as that game was over, we all knew we were going to get another shot at Gibson City,” senior fullback/linebacker Luke Olson said.
“The kids wanted to get another chance at them, and we get it,” Newman coach Mike Papoccia added. “Our kids know who we’re playing. They know what to expect.
[Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley’s] so well-coached and plays so hard.
“We know it’s not going to be an easy game, and we’re all-in on it,” the coach added.
Papoccia and his staff have watched three films of the Falcons – last year’s semifinal loss, a 48-0 wipeout of LeRoy on Oct. 5, and last week’s 31-7 win against Chicago Hope.
The main difference from last year to this year is the primary ballcarrier. Last year’s Falcons rode Mitch McNutt, a 220-pound bruiser who tried to walk-on at Illinois. His replacement is Jared Trantina, a 5-8, 200-pounder who is smaller but shiftier than McNutt.
Trantina has 153 carries for 1,431 yards and 31 touchdowns this season. He is one of five returning starters on offense and eight returning starters on defense for the Falcons (11-0).
“Besides that, they’re the same team,” Papoccia said. “There’s a lot of kids back from last year’s team. Their offensive line and defensive line is a lot like ours. I think a lot of the success is because of those guys up front.”
If slowing down Trantina is job No. 1 for the Comets, job No. 1a is containing senior quarterback Nathan Garard.
“We’ve got to get pressure on their quarterback,” Olson said. “Their quarterback’s a good athlete. We’ve got to stop their running back [Trantina], but I think our defense is made to stop running teams. Really, it’s nothing different. We’ve just got to do our jobs, and everything will take care of itself.”
Garard has completed 56 of 92 passes for 919 yards, with 11 touchdowns. His late 21-yard TD pass to tight end Bryce Barnes (another returning starter) was the difference in the championship game win against Maroa-Forsyth last November.
“He’s the one that makes them beat, I think,” Papoccia said of Garard. “I said that last year when they played in the championship game. He threw that touchdown pass like he’s done it all his life. He’s really cool and calm in there, and he doesn’t make mistakes. I really think he’s the one that makes them tick.”
GCMS has outscored 11 opponents 549-37 this season, with six shutouts. The only team to score more than once against the Falcons was 9-2 Eureka, which fell 41-12 back in Week 2.
Newman (10-1) has posted similar numbers, with a 505-89 scoring advantage. The Comets’ only hiccup was a 20-17 loss to Orion in Week 3; the Chargers are still alive in the 2A playoffs, and will host Eastland-Pearl City in a battle of unbeatens on Saturday.
Newman plays stout defense (8.1 ppg allowed) and churns out yards with a punishing ground game. The Comets have 3,830 yards as a team, with Olson (94 carries, 1,008 yards, 15 TDs), Connor McBride (100-968, 15 TDs), Brody Ivey (72-555, 7 TDs) and Chase Graham (57-535, 12 TDs) leading the way.
“It’s the front guys,” McBride said. “We’ve got to get their linemen, their ends and their ‘backers. If we can beat them, then it will be just trying to beat the cornerbacks and safeties. It’s about controlling the middle.”
A vast difference between last year’s game and this year’s will be the playing surface. Four inches of rain fell in Gibson City the night before last year’s contest, turning the football field into a quagmire. Howling winds and intermittent snow showers followed on game day.
This year’s game will be played on the pristine turf field at Roscoe Eades Stadium, with a game-time temperature of about 30 degrees and no precipitation expected.
“We both played on the same field, and they were better at it than we were,” Papoccia said. “They were the best team, and they showed that last year. This year, we’ll be on a better surface, and nobody can use that for an excuse.”
GCMS (11-0) at Newman (10-1)
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM