MILLEDGEVILLE – In 2019, the Milledgeville football team had an uncharacteristically bad season.
After going undefeated in the NUIC Upstate a year prior to win its first conference championship since 2008, the Missiles reached the second round of the Class 1A playoffs and finished with a 10-1 record – but it followed with an uninspiring 1-8 campaign in 2019.
The Missiles’ only win that year came in Week 6 – an 8-0 victory against Ashton-Franklin Center. In a COVID-19-altered 2020 season, Milledgeville began to right the ship, improving to 3-1. With a full season and switch to eight-man football in 2021, the Missiles continued their quick turnaround, rallying to a 9-2 record while reaching the second round of the playoffs.
This spring, Milledgeville graduated 10 seniors, but it’ll look to carry on that success as it continues to adjust to eight-man football.
“We definitely want to take another step, that’s our goal. To get better each week, go deep into playoffs – that’s our hope – but we have a lot of new faces,” Milledgeville coach Jason Wroble said. “We have some young kids that are going to step up, graduated 10 last year, so we have some holes to fill, but I like where we’re at and how competitive we are. I think that goal of going a little deeper in the playoffs is attainable.”
To maintain and build upon last year’s success, the Missiles will be counting on a number of new faces.
On each side of the ball, Milledgeville counts three returning starters.
Junior quarterback Connor Nye is one of the leaders of the group. The Missiles also will get a boost from the return of senior running back/cornerback Kacen Johnson, who missed the end of last season with a broken leg. Senior center/defensive lineman Eric Ebersole is back as well to anchor both sides of the line.
Senior wide receiver Bryce Aude is another returner, although he’s nursing a leg injury. Wroble hopes to get the senior wideout back on the field by midseason.
Through the early days of summer camp, Nye has been adjusting to a new group of playmakers. He knows it won’t be easy to replace five starters from last year, but he has faith in the players coming up – and sees one potentially new advantage for his team this season.
“It’s going to be challenging. We had a lot of size that we lost, but we’re a very fast team, and hopefully our speed will be used more on the field instead of our size,” Nye said. We’ll just hope we can get the ball out to [our playmakers], and make them run.”
Ebersole notes that it’s going to be a big change, but he believes the new guys will get up to speed quickly.
“[Losing 10 seniors is] going to be a big deal. I don’t think any of us realize the difference they’re gonna make,” Ebersole said. “I think we’re going to get in-game, and you can put guys in their position, but I don’t know if we’re all going step in and fill in as good as some of the guys were.
“This year, we don’t really have any big guys, so we can outsmart people, work harder, but we don’t have size on our side. I’ve got confidence that we’ll get there. The team will put in work these last few summer days, and we’ll get good rest and practice and work hard.”
Milledgeville has a smaller senior class this year, with several juniors and an even split of varsity and frosh-soph players in the program. With a mix of youth and experience, the Missiles hope to reload and match – or better – their 9-2 record and second-round playoff appearance from a season ago.
Wroble envisions the passing game as a primary strength this year. He also hopes to play a fast, fundamentally sound and physical brand of defense.
“I think, offensively, we’ll be able to throw the ball pretty well with Connor. He played last year at quarterback and had a really good year,” Wroble said. “And he has some good receivers returning, so I think we’ll be able to move the ball through the air pretty good this year – and effectively. And on defense, we just want to play fast and tackle well and be physical. That’s our goal. We did that last year; we gotta do the same thing this year.”
Wroble also pointed to team speed as a strength for this year’s group.
“I think we’re going to be a very fast team. We’re not going to be real big, but we’re going to be fast at almost every position,” he said. “On both sides of the ball, up front, we’re going to be pretty fast.”
In 2022, Milledgeville has some new opponents to look forward to. In Week 3, it’ll travel to Decatur to face Decatur Lutheran/Mount Pulaski, then, in Week 6, it’ll host St. Thomas More in a nonconference tilt.
Ebersole and Nye said they’re both excited for the change of pace.
“We’re facing a lot of teams that we haven’t seen at all before, at least three teams we haven’t seen,” Ebersole said. “So it’ll be cool, but tough.”
“Definitely tough. We haven’t faced a couple of those teams, and we’ve gotta travel a little further for some of those teams, but it will definitely be challenging,” Nye said. “And it’ll be fun seeing some new teams instead of the same old, same old teams.”
Wroble expects the usual suspects – two-time defending eight-man state champion Polo, Amboy-LaMoille, Orangeville and Aquin – to provide tough competition in conference, but he’s also intrigued to see how his team stacks up against unfamiliar foes in the second half of the season.
“We’ve got a tough schedule. I think we have seven schools that made the playoffs last year on our schedule, so coming from the NUIC to eight-man, in the NUIC you’ve got to be ready every week. Every week you’re playing a good football team,” Wroble said. “And we’re sort of back to that this year. We have to be ready every week. We start the season with Orangeville, then Aquin. Then we have Amboy and Polo, so the front half of our schedule is really loaded. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier. We get the back half. Some teams we haven’t seen because we have to play St. Thomas More out of Champaign and Decatur Lutheran, so we have a tough schedule, but I like it because you want to push yourself throughout the season.”
With quite a few new starters coming in, Nye and Ebersole aren’t totally sure what to expect this season. Still, they’re keeping their expectations high.
“I think we’ll be good, but just maybe not as good as we were last year,” Nye said. “But I think we’ll be up there as a top team, and hopefully we can be as successful as we were last year.”
“We don’t really have a conference like we used to, but still our goal is to win conference, make playoffs, improve, take a step forward,” Ebersole said.
Milledgeville opens the season at 2021 state runner-up Orangeville at 7 p.m. Aug. 27, then hosts Aquin on Sept. 2 in its home opener.