Marquette's Luke Couch (8) bursts between the blocks of teammates for a gain in the Crusaders' win over Rockford Christian last fall in south Ottawa. The Crusaders will play the spring 2021 season like a member of the Lincoln Trail Conference on a one-year basis.
Marquette's Luke Couch (8) bursts between the blocks of teammates for a gain in the Crusaders' win over Rockford Christian last fall in south Ottawa. The Crusaders will play the spring 2021 season like a member of the Lincoln Trail Conference on a one-year basis. — Shaw Media file

It’s hard to imagine that the Marquette Academy football program would consider itself lucky on any level after having it’s 2020 season first cancelled, then moved to the spring. But the Crusaders were indeed fortunate to fill a whole new schedule in short order, even if it is for one season.

With the dissolution of the Northeastern Athletic Conference and the IHSA’s pandemic guidelines demanding that programs play teams either in their conferences or geographically close for the seven-game spring season, now-independent MA was in a real pickle.

Fortunately, it found a willing partner in the Lincoln Trail Conference.

Marquette will essentially fill the LTC slot vacated by Biggsville West Central, which opted after last season to try 8-man football. Though the league has another school coming in to fill that vacancy in what will hopefully be the fall of 2020 season, it welcomed in the grateful Cru with open arms for the spring session.

The Crusaders will open at Gould Stadium against Mid-County. They will then visit Stark County and host Mercer County before back-to-back road games at Cambridge Ridgewood and at the Kewanee Wethersfield co-op with Annawan. It finishes with Monmouth United at home and Princeville on the road.

“Had we played in the fall, we would have played some of the Lincoln Trail and had four other non-Lincoln Trail schools, but now it’s strictly Lincoln Trail and we’re fine with that ,” said MA’s veteran coach Tom Jobst. “It’s only for one year, but it really helped us out a lot and we’re very grateful … We have some games lined up for next (fall) season. It would sure be nice to be in a conference, but we’ll likely be an independent again next year. We’ll just play the cards we’ve got and see what happens.”

Ottawa coach Chad Gross is somewhat logically. He is treating this fall like what would normally be spring football practices for his young squad, getting his base offense and defense in so that in February, it can go with a short refresher before traveling to Plano for its opener on Mar. 5.

The Pirates will then host Sycamore and Morris before hitting the road again to La Salle-Peru. It comes home again for Friday night contests with Kaneland and Sandwich before closing out the campaign at Rochelle.

“It’s definitely going to be a little different. Playing in the spring, first of all, is going to be a shock to everybody and there won’t be much preseason,” said Gross, “but conference wise, once we get into game play, we’re going to know what to expect from everybody. All of the coaches are the same and they’re all good teams with good returning players, so it’s not a huge change for us. Just a change in the time of year we’re playing.”

Also in the I-8, Sandwich and coach Kris Cassie will face a lot of familiar faces, beginning with their own. The Indians plan to have a Black and Orange scrimmage on Feb. 26, probably regardless of the weather. Their opener will be at home with La Salle-Peru before they take to the road for three straight weeks, venturing to Kaneland, Sycamore and Rochelle.

The Tribe will host Plano for the annual “War on 34” meeting and, after a road battle at Ottawa, Week 7 will see Sandwich host Morris.

Seneca coach Ted O’Boyle and the Fighting Irish will have four of its seven Sangamon Valley Conference games in their own friendly confines, though its first encounter will be on the road at Iroquois West. The green machine will entertain Catlin Salt Fork and Paxton-Buckley-Loda, then after a jaunt south to meet Clifton Central, its back home for battles with Watseka and Momence.

The spring season will wrap with a roadie to Dwight.

The two new coaches in The Times area will have plenty of game film to study as both Streator and Fieldcrest are both playing seven conference teams they saw a year ago.

Kyle Tutt, who is now at the Bulldogs helm, admitted that he is not that familiar with the opponents on his club’s schedule, outside of the Manteno program now led by his old high school coach, R.J. Haines. However, he’s has luck finding film on Hudl and other media venues that will quickly get him better acquainted with the Illinois Central Eight conference.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been excited about February,” joked Tutt. “Hopefully we can find a way to adjust to what I like to do and make that all work together to make us competitive in the ICE. It’s a difficult conference with the likes of Coal City and Wilmington at the top and everyone else trying to figure out a way to beat them. I want us to be one of the teams at the top, too.

“It’s just a pleasure to be at Streator. The administration is very supportive and all the people I’ve met have been so warm and welcoming to me, my wife and my family. It’s a blessing to be around such great people.”

Unfortunately, Streator will not get to play its renewed rivalry game with Ottawa, one of the two non-conference games lost. SHS will take an ICE trip to Wilmington for the Mar. 5 opener before registering its home lidlifter against Reed-Custer in Week 2.

After that, it will travel to Coal City before returning home for two weeks to tangle with Peotone and Herscher. The ‘Dogs will wrap things up with a journey to Manteno before hosting Lisle.

The Knights’ new mentor, Mike Freeman, will have a few more tapes to scan as FHS is coming of its state semifinal run of 2019 under then-head coach Derek Schneeman.

This spring, Fieldcrest will open the season at home with Tri-Valley, then visit Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. So far, there is not a game slated for Week 3, but the Knights will return with a trip to Deer Creek-Mackinaw. There a home game with Ridgeview/Lexington and a roadie to Eureka before finishing up in Minonk with rival El Paso-Gridley.

The area’s third playoff team from 2019, the Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland Falcons, at the moment have only six of their seven games in the ever-expanding 8-man football conferences scheduled.

In the North Conference, coach Todd Reed’s club will square off at South Conference Milford in its initial game on Mar. 5. Next up will be the home start against the Biggsville West Central that Marquette replaced in the Lincoln Trail slate.

After another trip to play Lowpoint-Washburn, FCW has back-to-back home meetings with another South foe St. Thomas More and Peoria Heights before the finale at North Fulton.