FULTON, Ill. — Running has always been a big part of the Fulton Steamers' game plan, and this year is no exception. A veteran group of senior athletes who regularly carry the ball are the ones carrying Fulton into playoff action today.
That senior group is led offensively by Austin Rash, Austin Schroeder and Bryce Grant.
“We’re kind of like a three-headed monster,” quarterback Grant said. “We’ll pound it with Rash; then give it to Schroeder, who has a lot of speed; then I get the leftover carries basically.”
Although Grant is behind the ball, he's not one to shy away from the run game. He has 357 rushing yards through the nine regular-season games, including just over 150 in the final game against Erie/Prophetstown.
“When you can hear the crowd when you’re running, and if you score you can just feel the entire crowd," Grant said, describing his 78-yard touchdown run last Friday. "It feels like the entire community is behind you.”
Grant has completed 41 of 80 passing attempts as well, good for more than 600 yards on the season. His favorite target is Tyler Bruggenwirth, another senior, who has 25 catches for 294 yards. Next is Schroeder, who has 125 receiving yards.
Where Schroeder really shines, though, is with the ball in his hands. He has almost 1,300 rushing yards this season.
“It’s good because you know they can’t single any one of us out: they have to stop all three,” Schroeder said. “It’s hard to stop three people. Each time, one of us has a big night and we all accept that.”
Right behind Schroeder this season has been Rash. He has more than 700 yards for the Steamers — something he says he's been working on since coming into the program.
“Coming in, I knew the Steamers were more of a running team,” Rash said. “I’ve been working all through summers and every year to try to be a part of it.
“You have to be really dedicated in what you do and spend a lot of extra time. Plus, you have to spend a lot of time with your team and get team-bonding going. You have to do everything you can to be the best you can.”
The three seniors credit everything to the rest of the offensive line.
“They’re a great group of guys, and I wouldn’t want to spend these last few games with anybody else,” Rash said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to spend high school with anybody else. We have a lot of good friendships and bonds, and I’m going to miss playing with them.”
That approach to the offense is something the Steamers work on in order to keep defense on its toes.
“Philosophically, we try to offensively get the ball to different guys," Fulton Coach Patrick Lower said. "Austin Schroeder has almost 1,300 yards, so he’s our main ball carrier, but Austin Rash has close to 700 yard, so you can’t fall asleep on him. Then we’ve got three or four different guys we go to when we throw the ball, and it’s nice to have all those options. It really puts the defense in a bind.”
It's certainly going to be a big part of their game going into their first playoff contest against Ottawa Marquette at 1 this afternoon.
“Ottawa Marquette is a really good football team. They run the ball, they don’t make a lot of mistakes, they don’t fumble the ball much; it’s very assignment based and kind of smash-mouth, ground-and-pound kind of football," Lower said. "So it’s going to be a physical football game, and we have to be ready for that.”
The 6-3 Steamers are coming off a shutout win against Erie/Prophetstown, taking down the Panthers 46-0. Lower said he was excited about how his team played in all three phases of the game and it couldn't give them better momentum heading into the postseason.
“We aren’t just excited to be here, but this is where we wanted to be,” Lower said. “We knew all year that if we did what we should during the regular season we would be here. We’re happy and we’re humble, but we also want to win as many as we possibly can.”
Lower has been confident in his group of athletes all year, touting their age and maturity as a big positive. He says the experience the seniors have seen throughout their varsity time the past few years puts them in a good position in big games.
“We had a lot of close games this year and a lot last year that went down to the last drive for either team,” Lower said. The Steamers have had three games this season alone that have come down to one or two plays. “These guys, we’re never out of it — we’re never too far ahead and never too far behind. In these close games we’re used to it, we’re accustomed to it. Marquette has had a lot of two, three, four, five scores they’ve been winning by. If we get down to a tight game, I like our chances.”
Plus, if the Steamers get the victory on the road, they will play the second round at home.
“We got to host two of our three playoff games last year,” Lower said. “It was a great crowd, great atmosphere, and we’re hoping to do that again next week.”
The seniors and Coach Lower say practice the week went well. Now it's down to playing their game.
“It’s been going great; we have a good game plan in,” Grant said. “It’s just going to come down to who’s going to execute more on Saturday.”