STERLING -- At 6 p.m. Saturday, two football teams with state-championship experience will meet each other in the IHSA Class 2A state quarterfinals.
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley will enter Roscoe Eades Stadium in Sterling on a 25-game winning streak that includes last year's state championship game.
En route to winning the state title last year, GCMS defeated Sterling Newman Central Catholic 14-8 in the semifinals.
"The kids have been looking forward to this for the last year. We were pretty devastated last year. It was a heck of a football game. Even though it was not the best of conditions, it was still a great atmosphere. Both teams played as well as possible," Newman head coach Michael Papoccia said.
They beat us, and deserved to go on, and ended up winning state, which was great. The kids have looked forward to a rematch with them, so they're getting what they wished for. It's kind of an honor. They've been on top of 2A for two years. They're very well-coached. It's going to present a huge offering to us, and we'll just have to show up and give it our best."
While the Falcons are in the playoffs for the sixth straight year, and in the quarterfinals for the third time in four years, Newman Central Catholic is making its 18th-consecutive playoff appearance. The Comets have a 65-24 overall record in the playoffs, including five state championships and two state runner-ups.
"Sterling Newman is a powerhouse in 2A," GCMS head coach Mike Allen said. "They've been around for a long time now. When you play them, you're going to have to bring your 'A' game. Otherwise, it's going to be a long day for them. The kids will be ready. We'll have a game plan for them ready to go. The kids are excited to be able to travel and play on the turf."
The added motivation for the Comets of trying to get revenge for last season's semifinal loss is not lost on the Falcons, Allen said.
"They're going to have a lot of motivation, and our kids know that and are going to have to match their intensity," Allen said. "It's the quarterfinals -- we'd better be ready to play."
"I think it'll be a great high school football game, kind of like last year," Papoccia added. "Hopefully, both teams show up and give their best, and everybody can walk off the field knowing they left it all on the field."
On GCMS's offensive side of the ball, the matchup will be between an offense that averaged 49.1 points per game in the regular season and a Newman defense that allowed only 6.8 points per game.
"They can run and pass very efficiently, and that'll present a real test for our defense," Papoccia said.
The Falcons gained over 400 yards on the ground in the last regular-season game as well as their first-round win over Watseka before Jared Trantina gained 162 yards last week against Chicago Hope Academy.
Trantina went into Saturday's game with 1,269 yards on the ground, but GCMS also has a capable air attack led by quarterback Nathan Garard, who had 883 yards and 11 touchdowns passing prior to last Saturday's game before completing 8-of-17 passes for 87 yards against Chicago Hope Academy.
"I think their quarterback's a real key for them," Papoccia said. "I thought that last year as I saw him when we played them, and as I saw him at the state (championship). He's a winner. He's a kid that really makes them tick. We'd like to get some pressure on him, but I'm sure they'll have a lot to say about that."
Wideout Ryland Holt is GCMS's all-time record holder in touchdown receptions and went into last Saturday's game with 18 receptions for 369 yards and seven touchdowns while tight end Bryce Barnes had 17 catches for 325 yards and two touchdowns prior to Saturday.
"They're a great offensive team. They like to run the ball, but they can throw the ball," Papoccia said. "They don't throw when they have to -- they throw when they want to, and they've got a couple of really good receivers to throw to."
Newman Central Catholic counters with a run-heavy offense. In their 46-14 victory in last Saturday's second-round game over Carthage Illini West, the Comets gained 360 rushing yards, including 129 yards and three touchdowns on seven carries by Chase Graham.
"Coach Papoccia has run that wishbone offense for so many years, and that's what they're known for -- smash-mouth football. They'll lull you to sleep running it, and they'll all of a sudden come with the playaction pass, and you'd better be ready for that. Their fakes are very good.
"You have to play assignment football -- they have three running backs and a quarterback in the backfield, and you have to know where every one of them is every time."
Brycen Bartel completed 2-of-2 pass attempts for 31 yards against Illini West while also scoring on a 2-yard touchdown run.
"We're a running team. We like to control the ball. We think we can throw the ball. We just haven't had to," Papoccia said. "I'm bull-headed -- I like to keep the ball in my hands as long as possible. We certainly think we have the ability to throw if we need to."
The GCMS defense allowed only 2.7 points per game during the regular season, including six shutouts. Chicago Hope Academy's Trevor Land scored the only first-half touchdown from scrimmage yielded by the Falcons all season.
"It's going to be a mountain to climb, for sure," Papoccia said. "They put up some great defensive numbers, for sure. Judging from the tapes we have, they deserve those numbers. They're very tough on defense and very well-coached. Their techniques are great. They're the real deal on defense, for sure."
While fifth-seeded Newman Central Catholic rumbled its way to an upset over previously-undefeated, and No. 4-seeded, Illini West, the top-seeded Falcons did something in their 31-7 win over Chicago Hope Academy that they have not needed to do all season -- play their starters through all four quarters.
"We were just so happy with how our kids played in every aspect of the game. The way we stood tall and played against a very good team, our coaching staff was just so proud of our kids," Allen said.
"(That game built) just the confidence of being able to go for those four quarters being in shape knowing you can go four quarters and are able to sustain that energy and that level of intensity for that long. Our kids were excited."
The weight room adjacent to GCMS's football field was open for the team on Sunday.
"They were sore yesterday," Allen said. "We opened the weight room up (on Sunday) so they could work the soreness out, just so their bodies could get used to that and they can understand that they'll bounce back quickly also."
Last year's state semifinal game was played through muddy conditions as morning rain turned into snow that blew heavily toward the south end zone at GCMS's home field.
"It was even last year. Both teams played in the mud, so it was no big deal," Papoccia said.
Allen said he expects Saturday's game in Sterling to be in cold conditions as well.
"That weather was so horrible. The weather is supposed to be very cold (next Saturday)," Allen said. "We have to make sure to keep that out of our minds. We have to have the right mindset."
The field should not be as torn up, however, as Roscoe Eades Stadium includes artificial turf for its football field.
"This year, we won't have to worry about the mud factor, but the turf will be there for both teams," Papoccia said. It'll be nice for both teams. It's a great venue. I'm sure they'll like the turf. It's the same as last year. Both teams are on the field."
It will not be the first time the Falcons played on turf during their recent winning streak, which includes two wins over El Paso-Gridley on its artificial turf as well as their 38-32 win over Maroa-Forsyth in the 2A state championship game, which was played on turf at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
"We've played well on the turf in the past couple of years. Our kids have adjusted quickly, and they enjoyed it," Allen said. "It's one of those special treats when you get to play on it, and we take advantage of it."
Record — 11-0
How they got there:
Week 1 — GCMS 28, PBL (7-4) 0
Week 2 — GCMS 41, Eureka (9-2) 12
Week 3 — GCMS 57, Heyworth (1-8) 0
Week 4 — GCMS 48, Fieldcrest (5-5) 6
Week 5 — GCMS 56, Fisher (8-3) 0
Week 6 — GCMS 42, Tri-Valley (7-4) 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
Players to watch:
Jared Trantina — He had 162 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries in last Saturday's win over Chicago Hope Academy.
Aidan Laughery — He led GCMS's defense in tackles with 10, including one for loss of yards — last Saturday and scored a touchdown on a screen pass in the first round against Watseka.
Nathan Garard — He passed for 87 yards while also scoring on a touchdown run last Saturday.
Sterling Newman Central Catholic
Record — 10-1
How they got there:
Week 1 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 48, Kewanee (2-7) 0
Week 2 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 40, Princeton (7-3) 0
Week 3 — Orion (10-0) 20, Sterling Newman Central Catholic 17
Week 4 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 55, Morrison (2-7) 8
Week 5 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 42, Taylor Ridge Rockridge (7-3) 0
Week 6 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 75, Manilus Bureau Valley (3-6) 14
Week 7 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 27, Spring Valley Hall (7-3) 0
Week 8 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 47, Fulton (5-5) 12
Week 9 — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 54, Port Byron Riverdale (2-7) 7
First-round playoffs — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 54, Rockford Christian (6-4) 14
Second-round playoffs — Sterling Newman Central Catholic 46, Carthage Illini West (10-1) 14
Players to watch:
Chase Graham — He had 129 yards and three touchdowns on seven carries last Saturday over Carthage Illini West.
Connor McBride — He added 87 yards rushing on 13 carries last Saturday.
Brody Ivey — He had 58 yards rushing — including a touchdown — on nine carries last Saturday.
NOTE: Regular-season opponents' records for Sterling Newman Central Catholic do not include playoff games.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Category GCMS SNCC
Record 11-0 10-1
Enrollment 312 367.95
Opp. record 43-38 41-40
Playoff opps. 6 5
Avg. ppg. 49.1 45.0
Avg. opp. ppg. 2.7 6.8
Avg. point diff. 46.4 38.2
Cons. playoff app. 6 18
Playoff record 17-16 65-24
NOTE: Stats do not include playoff games.