Fieldcrest High School — the result of a consolidation of the Minonk-Dana-Rutland, Wenona and Toluca school districts back in the early 1990s — has, since its formation, been a small-school boys basketball powerhouse under Hall of Fame coach Matt Winkler.
That has changed in the past handful of years, however.
The Knights have made the IHSA's Class 2A playoffs six of the past seven seasons and won the first playoff game in school history in 2014. They've won six more since, propelling Fieldcrest to the state semifinals in both 2014 and 2019.
While they've lost some serious muscle from that last semifinal team to Pomp and Circumstance — as well as Derek Schneeman, head coach for the past six seasons, to the DeKalb football program — and have to contend in the loaded Heart of Illinois Conference, the Knights under former assistant/new head coach Mike Freeman look loaded to keep their good thing going when and if the 2020 season gets underway.
"We have all our coaches back other than Derek," Freeman said, "and that's what makes our program what it is, guys like Craig Meyer and Wayne Weber who have been here since the beginning."
Head coach: Mike Freeman (1st season)
Last year's record: 12-1
While there was plenty to talk about at the talent positions, the strength of last season's Heart of Illinois Conference Large champions was undoubtedly up front. Three of those cornerstones — including The Ottawa/Streator Times Football Player of the Year and the La Salle NewsTribune Defensive Player of the Year, Mason Faulk — are gone to graduation.
"What the coaches and I are really looking at is the defensive line," Freeman said. "We lost a lot of girth, meat, size, for lack of a better word, and we're going to have to be more creative on the defensive line than we have in the past. And it's the same thing on the offensive line, where we lost three starters — two of them three-year starters.
"Our skill guys are off the charts, athletic and exciting and talented."
Players to watch
While three are gone, the two starting linemen who are returning for the Knights are awfully good in their own right.
Offensive linemen/linebackers Travis Sunken and Jordan Hochecker are both back and expected to do big things in 2020.
"While we did lose those three three-year starters, Travis and Jordan are going to be three-year starters this year as well," said Freeman. "They are two totally different kids, but they're each special in his own way.
"Travis is quiet, reserved, but when the whistle blows he really gets after it. ... Everything that kid does is a model of what you'd want your student or son to be. He may not be the first one to hoot and holler and jump around, but if you can get a smile out of that kid, you know things must be going great.
"Jordan's loud and loves to get after it. He'll come hit you, laugh and do it again. He's a bigger kid in terms of overall size, and he loves to use that to his advantage, but he's a great competitor as well.
"Those two together, it's just a great cornerstone to run our offense through."
The No. 1 candidate to be the main beneficiary of that has to be the dynamic senior-to-be wide receiver/running back/defensive back Jaxon Cusac-McKay. A great athlete for any level, Cusac-McKay hauled in 59 receptions for 792 yards and 10 TDs last fall, adding 387 yards and six TDs rushing. He also recorded six INTs on defense, earned Second Team All-Friday Night Drive status and is an elite playmaker on every inch of the gridiron.
“Of course you want his athletic ability on the field," Freeman said, "but his game and talent and who he is extends way beyond that. It extends to his leadership skills, the way he communicates with the team. … There’s not an aspect of that kid’s game that’s not helping Fieldcrest football in every way.”
Quarterback/defensive back Cory Land saw his snaps increase as the season went on, and is now the heir apparent to take over Fieldcrest's ahead-of-the-curve, balanced offensive attack.
Other key returnees include WR/S Henry Lorton, LB/TE Ethan Stoeger and K/P/WR/LB Jacob Joyal, who Freeman describes as "a special teams weapon."
Newcomers you need to know
Freeman cites OL/DL Clayton Boland ("he's never gotten the recognition, but you will hear about him"), RB/OLB Austin Jefford ("a do-it-all guy") and slot/DB Isaac Morse ("tough-nosed, willing to get after it") as some of the players expected to move into the varsity spotlight.
Also worth keeping an eye on are WR/DBs Zachary Keller, Nate Flynn and Lucas Sidebottom.
2020 schedule analysis
The season opener at Dwight is one of five regular-season road games for the Knights this coming season, the others being at Tremont (Week 3), at certain-to-be-revenge-minded Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (Week 4), at Deer Creek-Mackinaw (Week 6) and the annual Veterans Bowl rivalry showdown with Eureka (Week 8).
"Our road games are all challenging," Freeman said.
The home games — Week 2 vs. 2015 2A state champion Tri-Valley, a Saturday afternoon home game in Week 5 against West Hancock, a Week 7 visit from Ridgeview/Lexington and the regular-season finale vs. El Paso-Gridley — are no slouches either.
"We only have three Friday night home games," said Freeman. "I've been preaching to the kids, 'You only get three of these this year where you get to play under the lights in front of your friends and family.
" 'Make 'em count.' "
The schedule's never going to be easy in the Heart of Illinois Conference, but even with a new head coach and new team strength — from the lines to the talent positions — the Fieldcrest Knights look like a force to be reckoned with when and if the 2020 season is contested.