Making history isn't enough for the West Carroll varsity football team. The Thunder reached a milestone and now want to exceed it.
“Our kids have played very well this year,” West Carroll Coach Matthew Leitzen said. “As far as school history goes, this is the first time we’ve won six games in the regular season, which is a big deal. I don’t think the kids are content with six by any means, and I think we’re taking the right steps. That’s encouraging as far as a program goes.”
Leitzen is taking a team to the playoffs for the second time in his three years as the varsity coach. The year before taking the varsity position, he coached the freshman-sophomore team, which included this year's senior class.
“This senior class has been along for that ride since the beginning. A lot of them are what I call Day One guys," Leitzen said. "They were there the first day I got the job, they’ve been through the program and they understand the expectations which I like. They’re kids that know how big of a deal it is to win six games but also know there needs to be more. That’s a good sign for us.”
The Thunder are 6-3 this season, losing only to Lena-Winslow, the No. 1-ranked team in Class 1A; Dakota; and Forreston, the defending 1A state champion. Forreston's lone loss was against Lena-Winslow, and both of them handed Dakota its two losses.
Leitzen says a big reason for the turnaround in the West Carroll football program is the dedicated group of kids who are seniors now.
“You truly get to see those kids grow up in front of your eyes," Leitzen said. "As freshman, I thought they were very good football players, but you don’t know what that’s going to look like when they reach this point in their career.”
“This is why we took this job. This is what we envisioned and what we thought we could get. It’s awesome to see the maturity and the way they’ve grown up. Getting to see that for all four years — not a lot of people get to experience that. Not only that, but I’ll only experience it one time because I will never be able to say I was their fresh-soph coach as well as their varsity coach. It's definitely a different feeling.”
The Thunder will take on Fieldcrest at 2 this afternoon in Minonk, Illinois, in the first round of the Illinois Class 2A football playoffs. With no major injuries, Leitzen says it's coming down to execution.
“We’ve got a good idea of what we want to do on both sides of the ball," he said. "As it gets later in the week, you’re just trying to fine tune those things and make sure everything is buttoned up. They know what they’re going to see, and they know what they’re going to get. We’re taking those steps.”
The Thunder have multiple athletes to go to offensively. Quarterback Kody Plattenberger has complete 75 of 139 passing attempts for 1,160 yards and 13 touchdowns. His twin brother, Kaleb Plattenberger, has a team-high 451 receiving yards on 25 receptions. Jake Dunk is right behind with 26 catches and 349 yards.
That doesn't mean you can count out the run game. Kaleb Hartman has 745 rushing yards, while Kaleb Plattenberger adds another 320 through the first nine games of the season. Quarterback Kody Plattenberger has taken the ball for 127 years as well.
“I think for us offensively the name of the game for us all season was balance," Leitzen said. "We’re a team that can run the ball when we need to, but at the same time if you give us the look, we can spread you out and throw the ball.
“That makes us a tough team to prepare for because you know we can be dynamic in that sense of the game. That’s something we’re looking to hit as well this week and something we’ve worked on.”
The Fieldcrest offense could prove to be troublesome for West Carroll. Quarterback Cam Grandy has thrown for 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns but also has almost 900 rushing yards to add to his season stats.
“Defensively, they have a very good quarterback," Leitzen said. "He looks very good on film; no doubt about it he is the best football player on that side of the ball with his skill set. He throws the ball, he runs the ball very well and that’s something we’ve put a great deal of emphasis on this week.
"We don’t see a lot of running quarterbacks in our conference, so it’s a little different but certainly something I think our kids are up to as far as the challenge.”
Still, Leitzen said his team has bought in to everything the coaching staff has brought to the table. With the turnaround in the program he's seen the past three years, he says seven wins for the first time in school history would be a great testament to the work his team has put in.
“Our defense has been our staple all year," Leitzen said. "And they’re going to have to play as well as they have to get a win on Saturday.”