By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
ERIE, Ill. — There was little guesswork about what Erie/Prophetstown’s offense planned to do in key situations.
“Any time we were in a bind, we had 27 run behind 72,” Panthers coach Chuck Milem said.
Who could blame them?
With No. 72, Owen McConnell, anchoring the line, No. 27, Nick Williams, had a monster year out of the backfield, rushing for a school-record 2,097 yards.
That pair leads this year’s Clinton Herald All-Area Football Team, too. Two mainstays on teams that reached the Illinois high school playoffs after a decade of struggles, McConnell and Williams share the Herald’s Player of the Year honors.
The Herald’s All-Area team includes a first team and a second team, with 11 position players each on offense and defense, a kicker and a punter. Clinton High led the way with five first-team selections, while Erie-Prophetstown had four and Central DeWitt, Easton Valley, Fulton and Maquoketa had three apiece. The first team included six repeat performers -- McConnell, Maquoketa’s Cory Wirth and Cohl Kueter, and Easton Valley’s Andrew Driscoll, Brett Earles and Chase Zaruba -- while eight others also were recognized for the second year in a row.
The Herald sports staff selected the teams based on personal observations, statistical information and input from coaches at the 11 area high schools that play football.
Along with Williams and McConnell, Chuck Milem made it a postseason sweep for Erie/Prophetstown as he was named Coach of the Year.
Milem said the co-Player of the Year designation was fitting for two of his seniors who led the Panthers to an 8-3 record this fall after a 5-5 junior season.
He was happy he didn’t have to pick between the two.
“That’s trying to put me in a terrible position (picking one),” he said. “It’s hard not to go with Owen McConnell. He’s one of those kids whose 110 percent every single play. Everything he has is laid out there for you. Whether you’re talking practice, he brings another level and makes us that much better, or in the weight room all summer and offseason. The kid is the hardest-working kid I’ve been around.”
But it was equally difficult not to go with Williams.
“Nick, his performance speaks for itself every time out,” Milem said. “He’s such a hard-working kid.”
It’s the second year in a row the Panthers nabbed the top player award. Last year, Zach Inskeep earned the honor after rushing for more than 1,100 yards and earning first-team All-Three Rivers Conference honors on both offense and defense.
Williams made that impressive rushing total look miniscule.
“Nick came in this year, as I describe it, with a chip on his shoulder in a positive way,” Milem said. “People thought without Zach Inskeep, we were not as good. Nick took it as a challenge. He went out with something to prove every time in the weight room, and that prepared him for the season he had.”
Williams said: “Everybody was saying that I wouldn’t add up to what Zach could do. He was a good runner -- I’ll give him that -- but I was really proud to know that it wasn’t all about Zach. But I couldn’t do anything without my offensive line. They were really the heart of the offense.”
McConnell -- a member of the varsity since his sophomore year, when a knee injury shortened his season -- was the leader up front with his 6-foot-2, 265-pound frame.
“We play him at the most crucial position in our system, right guard,” Milem said. “He faces some of the best defensive technique we see. Owen, every game stands the test. He’s that lineman that everybody has to game-plan for. He changes the course of football games. He makes that type of difference.”
McConnell also excelled on defense and ranked third on the team with 74 tackles. He was a first-team All-Area pick on defense last season.
“Owen on defense was an absolute beast,” Milem said. “At first we played him on one side. But we thought teams were running away from him, so started moving him. He’s that type of kid we thought people did have to do that against him. It usually took two offensive players to take care of him.”
With McConnell and three other returning senior starters -- Kyle Coleman, Ken Cole and Jace Bright -- in front of Williams, it usually took more than one opposing player to stop the 5-10, 185-pound running back, too.
He rushed for nearly 350 yards in a win against Bureau Valley in Week 5 that put him over the 1,000-yard mark. He went over 2,000 in a season-ending loss to Stillman Valley, gaining 137 yards in the 24-14 loss.
“I’m real happy with how the season went for me, but I couldn’t have gotten anything, any of those yards, without my o-line,” Williams said. “That o-line did amazing all year. They played a high level and it really showed.”
And it made picking just one athlete as Player of the Year an impossible task.