By Bryan Bloodworth
BLOOMINGTON - Four teams from the Heart of Illinois Conference kick off first-round playoff games tonight with two - Ridgeview and Flanagan-Cornell-Woodland - facing each other at Colfax in Class 1A action.
Meanwhile, Tri-Valley entertains Havana at Downs, while while Tremont plays host to Ilini West in Class 2A action.
Ridgeview and Flanagan each have 7-2 records, but did not meet during the regular season. That makes this match-up even more intriguing.
"The HOI is kind of a different animal with 13 teams," said Flanagan coach Ryan Pearson. "It's a draw of who you play and we were not matched up with Ridgeview this year or next year as far as the regular season goes. It's definitely going to be a fun game and we're looking forward to it.
"We need to make sure we limit our mistakes. In a big game like this, we can't have critical mistakes at key down and distances. Obviously, the big one is turnovers. We can't afford to have any. We have to play a ball control type of offense and keep their offense off the field."
Ridgeview has a powerful running attack that averages 342 yards per game and has scored 37 touchdowns compared to just 532 yards on 30 pass completions in only 55 attempts. Josh Weier is the leading rusher with 1,019 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Zach Walker has added 930 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Flanagan will counter with a more balanced offense that averages 43.9 points. Kody Appel has rushed for a team-high 815 yards and 13 touchdowns, while quarterback Alec Dutko has completed 59\8 of 107 passes for 1,283 yards and 12 scores. Alex Erschen has 27 receptions for 611 yards.
"We have to keep them in front of us," said Ridgeview coach Mike Benton, whose team is making its first playoff appearance since 2007. "They're fast and they've got some very good receivers. They've lived and died with the big play.
"They've been real explosive. We'd like our offense to be our defense by keeping their offense off the field. Four and five yards and grind it out would be our game plan."
Tri-Valley (8-1) will be looking to rebound from last week's 34-0 loss to LeRoy in the championship game of the Heart of Illinois Conference. But more importantly, the Vikings will be seeking their first victory in six playoff games.
"We haven't talked about it, but the kids are aware of it," said Tri-Valley coach Josh Roop. "The kids are upbeat and ready to go. Havana is big and physical and a team that will run right at us. They have three very good backs and a huge offensive line that probably averages about 240-250 across the front. We'll have to control the offensive line."
Havana has a 6-3 record and made the playoffs with an at-large berth as a member of the Prairieland (Blue) Conference. Should Tri-Valley win, it will face the winner of the Watseka-Kewanee Wethersfield contest next week.
Tremont (8-1) will have to contend with the running attack of Illini Central (7-2) in its game.
"We certainly know their first goal is to run the ball and we've got to do a good job of containing their running game and being aware of what they do passing-wise," said Tremont coach Lou Wicks.
Tremont would play the winner of the Momence-Clifton Central game with a victory over Illini Central.
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org