SAVANNA, Ill. — The West Carroll football team slices its nine-game schedule into thirds.

The Thunder emerged from the season's first third with a 2-1 record and plenty of optimism. They're ready to cement themselves in the playoff picture during the middle third, but it starts with a tall task.

West Carroll travels to Lanark, Ill., on Friday to face Illinois Class 2A No. 9 Eastland/Pearl City at 7:30 p.m. The Thunder look to defeat EPC for the second time in school history.

“I don't know if they'll expect us to come out and play as hard as we do and hit as hard as we do,” West Carroll quarterback Ethan Baisden said. “I think we can make a big statement. A lot of teams are already giving us respect for playing real good, and this could help us get even more respect.”

West Carroll can claim its first 3-1 start since 2006.

The Thunder, who sit in a tie for second place in the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference Northwest Division, returned 19 letterwinners and 10 starters on each side of the ball from last year's 3-6 team.

The abundance of experience raised expectations for a program that has missed the playoffs once in its five-year existence.

So far, the Thunder has met the challenge.

“All spring the kids said, 'We could, we could, we could,'” West Carroll coach Dave Baisden said. “Coulds are nice. You have to do it.”

West Carroll's lone win over EPC (3-0, 2-0 NUIC Northwest) occurred in 2006. The Wildcats, however, have outscored the Thunder 79-0 combined in their past two meetings.

“They're always tough,” said Ethan Baisden, who rushed for 147 yards in last week's win over Warren/River Ridge. “They always have talent.”

Last week, EPC posted a 34-7 triumph over perennial juggernaut Galena, which began the season ranked in the Class 1A poll. The Wildcats feature one of the more dynamic offenses in the northwest corner of Illinois, with three players ranked in the top 10 of their respective statistical categories.

Quarterback Drake Walker has completed 59 percent of his passes for 364 yards, which ranks seventh in the Rockford, Ill., area. Tailback Alex Maurer ranks fourth with 459 rushing yards.

Then there's electrifying receiver Tony Dunlap.

The senior ranks second with 10 catches for 299 yards and four touchdowns. One of the conference's best all-around athletes, Dunlap last week caught four passes for 151 yards and three scores.

“I've been here 11 years now, and this is the best team I've seen out of them,” Dave Baisden said. “They've had great athletes, they've had explosive athletes, and they still have those, but they play well together. It's going to be a battle. If we can match their level of play, it'll be a fun game.”

The Thunder have an opportunity for a statement win, a victory that deems them a serious contender.

It marks their second such opportunity in the the past three weeks.

In Week 2, West Carroll faced Class 1A No. 6 Lena-Winslow and trailed by just six at halftime. But a 70-yard kickoff return and an 85-yard touchdown run by Le-Win super back Trey Griffin led to a 45-22 West Carroll defeat.

The Thunder insisted they've learned their lesson.

“This time we can't give up the big plays,” linebacker Colby Lemm said.

The Thunder face a tall hurdle this week, but should they bound it, their schedule works in their favor. West Carroll's next four opponents have a combined 5-7 record.

The remaining two thirds of the season could outshine the first. A win over EPC would certainly get the second third off to a fantastic start.

“These middle three are the games where you have to not be sloppy,” Dave Baisden said. “You have to play cleaner and better and try to set yourself up for that playoff run in the last three.”

This Week's Circulars