LANARK -- The Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School football team is playing in the IHSA Class 2A state semifinals for the second year in a row.
The Falcons earned their trip to the final four by beating a familiar opponent in Sterling Newman Central Catholic -- whom GCMS also beat 14-8 in last year's state semifinals en route to its state championship -- via 27-12 score in last Saturday's 2A quarterfinals.
"The kids played very well. The defense just played outstanding. (Assistant coach Chad) Augspurger had a great game plan going into that game, and the kids played their heart out," GCMS head coach Mike Allen said. "Bryce Barnes, Lane Short, Keegan Kutemeier -- those guys had outstanding games, and so did Austin Spiller. The whole defense played outstanding."
While the GCMS defense scored twice, quarterback Nathan Garard completed 10-of-16 passes for 151 yards. Jared Trantina, who scored one of GCMS's two defensive touchdowns, carried the ball for GCMS as well.
"Jared had an great game for us," Allen said. "Bryce (Barnes) and Ryland (Holt) received the ball well."
The game was not without flaws for the Falcons as they gave up a touchdown on a kickoff return.
"That's something we have to make sure we shore up this week," Allen said.
The Falcons' 26-game winning streak will be put to, perhaps, its greatest test of this season as they travel to Eastland High School in Lanark to face another undefeated team in Eastland-Pearl City at 2 p.m. Saturday in the 2A state semifinals.
"It's going to be a very tough matchup," Allen said. "They're a physical team. They have some outstanding running backs. Their quarterback throws the ball well, so we have a lot of prepare for on the offensive and defensive end. We'll have to get after it."
Last week's win over Newman was a rarity for GCMS as the Comets gave the Falcons a game that was competitive to the very end. Newman had the ball trailing 20-12, but Austin Spiller returned an interception for a touchdown to stall the drive with less than two minutes to play.
The Falcons won their regular-season games by an average point differential of 46.4 points per game, scoring 49.1 points per game while their defense yielded just 2.7 points per game. In the playoffs, GCMS defeated Watseka 76-6 and Chicago Hope Academy 31-7 in the first and second round, respectively.
"GCMS is a talented team," E-PC head coach Jared McNutt said. "They have a lot of athletes. Defensively, we'll have to be at the top of our game. Our offense is really going to have to bear down and be physical. We have a lot of athletes as well that can matchup with GCMS. It'll be a great game with a crazy atmosphere."
Last year, GCMS defeated E-PC by a score of 50-14. Under McNutt, who is in his first year as the Wolves' head coach, E-PC's undefeated record includes a 20-14 win in week five over defending 1A champion Lena-Winslow and a 34-8 triumph over Forreston -- which will face Lena-Winslow in one of the two 1A semifinal games this weekend as well -- in week four.
"I think we're totally different team this year. We have a different mentality," McNutt said. "We just have all the right pieces together right now. I don't think we'll have the same outcome. We've been playing a lot better than we had last year. We have a lot of those guys back, and they'll be looking forward to this game."
"He opened up the playbook, and has just done a fabulous job with those kids," Allen added. "It's tough to coach a team that has different schools playing together, but they've been so successul, and that's an outstanding job on his part."
It will not be the first time E-PC has faced an undefeated team in the playoffs. Last Saturday, the Wolves defeated previously-unbeaten Orion 30-3 in the quarterfinals.
"We're playing at a pretty high level," McNutt said. "The offense is clicking on all cylinders."
The E-PC defense forced three turnovers against Orion while its offense committed no turnovers.
"We have to be focused and make sure we're true to ourselves (against GCMS), McNutt said.
Jayden Kempel had 146 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries against Orion while also catching two passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. His twin brother, Jarod, had 99 yards rushing on 12 carries against Orion while also recording a fumble recovery and an interception on defense.
"They've been lights-out these past last couple of weeks," McNutt said. "Even on defense, they play hard-nosed football. Our defense has been playing very well, and our offensive line has been playing at a high level as well."
The Kempels are not the only twin brothers on E-PC's squad. Senior quarterback Braden Smargiassi and senior wide receiver/cornerback Brock Smargiassi are also twins.
"That's just kind of unheard of, and they help our team tremendously," McNutt said.
In a 49-14 win in the second round over Chicago Christian, Jarod Kempel rushed for touchdowns covering 16, 60 and 62 yards while Jayden Kempel scored on a 26-yard run and a 60-yard kickoff return.
"They complement each other on offense," Allen said.
The Kempel brothers, and the rest of the E-PC offense, will go up against a GCMS defense that, along with providing two touchdowns against Newman, produced six shutouts through the regular season and allowed only one offensive first-half touchdown from scrimmage through the first 11 weeks of the season.
"Lane Short and Nathan Garard are very talented safeties. They can cover a lot of ground, not just in the pass game, but in the run game as well," McNutt said. "We have to make sure we know where those guys are at all times and taking care of the football."
Some of Garard's passing yards against Newman went to senior wideout Ryland Holt, who is the GCMS school record holder for all-time touchdown receptions.
"(Holt) is a big wide receiver," McNutt said. "He is a versatile playmaker that they can chuck the ball to all over the field."
Record — 12-0
How they got there:
Week 1 — GCMS 28, PBL (7-3) 0
Week 2 — GCMS 41, Eureka (9-1) 12
Week 3 — GCMS 57, Heyworth (1-8) 0
Week 4 — GCMS 48, Fieldcrest (5-5) 6
Week 5 — GCMS 56, Fisher (8-2) 0
Week 6 — GCMS 42, Tri-Valley (6-5) 0
Week 7 — GCMS 48, LeRoy (5-5) 0
Week 8 — GCMS 63, El Paso-Gridley (3-6) 6
Week 9 — GCMS 59, Deer Creek-Mackinaw (3-6) 0
First-round playoffs — GCMS 76, Watseka (5-5) 6
Second-round playoffs — GCMS 31, Chicago Hope Academy (8-3) 7
Quarterfinals — GCMS 27, Sterling Newman Central Catohlic (10-2) 12
Players to watch:
Nathan Garard — He completed 10-of-16 passes for 151 yards last Saturday against SNCC.
Aidan Laughery — He scored on a 52-yard touchdown reception last Saturday.
Jared Trantina — He scored on an 83-yard fumble return last Saturday.
Record — 12-0
How they got there:
Week 1 — Eastland-Pearl City 28, East Dubuque (3-6) 0
Week 2 — Eastland-Pearl City 26, Amboy-LaMoille (3-6) 16
Week 3 — Eastland-Pearl City 36, Pecatonica (3-6) 0
Week 4 — Eastland-Pearl City 34, Forreston (9-2) 8
Week 5 — Eastland-Pearl City 20, Lena-Winslow (10-1) 14
Week 6 — Eastland-Pearl City 34, Galena (2-7) 7
Week 7 — Eastland-Pearl City 40, Savanna West Carroll (3-6) 12
Week 8 — Eastland-Pearl City 21, Dakota (8-3) 10
Week 9 — Eastland-Pearl City 42, Polo (5-5) 14
First-round playoffs — Eastland-Pearl City 58, Chicago Harlan (5-5) 26
Second-round playoffs — Eastland-Pearl City 48, Palos Heights Chicago Christian (7-4) 14
Quarterfinals — Eastland-Pearl City 30, Orion (11-1) 3
Players to watch:
Jayden Kempel — He had 146 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries and two receptions for 81 yards and one touchdown in last Saturday's win over Orion.
Jarod Kempel — He had 99 yards rushing on 12 carries against Orion. Defensively, he had a fumble recovery and an interception.
Travis Spong — He had one of three interceptions for E-PC against Orion.
NOTE: Regular-season opponents' records for Eastland-Pearl City do not include quarterfinal playoff games.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Category GCMS E-PC
Record 12-0 12-0
Enrollment 312 337
Opp. record 43-38 40-41
Playoff opps. 6 4
Avg. ppg. 49.1 31.2
Avg. opp. ppg. 2.7 9.0
Avg. point diff. 46.4 22.2
Cons. playoff app. 6 2
Playoff record 18-16 9-10
NOTE: Stats do not include playoff games.