Analysis | Friday Night Drive

After magical playoff run in 2021, Amboy has sights set on return to 8-man state semifinal

Amboy players run through drills Thursday, July 28, 2022 at the high school. First day of IHSA football practice is just over a week away for local teams.

AMBOY – The Amboy-LaMoille-Ohio football team surprised many onlookers last year when it reached the semifinals of the Illinois 8-man Football Association playoffs after a 5-4 regular season and 10th-seeded playoff entrance.

This year, it hopes to capture lightning in a bottle again, with the help of a sizable junior class and a host of returning players.

In 2021, led by a large contingent of sophomore starters, the Clippers topped Freeport Aquin, 52-28, in the opening round of playoffs, then downed Milledgeville, 28-18, in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual state runner-up Orangeville, 34-12, in the semifinals.

After reaching the doorstep of the I8FA state championship a season ago and returning five starters on each side of the ball, the Amboy co-op carries high hopes into the new season.

“We were a young football team last year, had a lot of sophomores starting,” coach Scott Payne said. “We’ve got five starters back on offense and defense, so our expectations are really high.”

“They’re pretty similar to last year,” senior quarterback Tucker Lindenmeyer said. “We have a lot of expectations to try to do the same thing we did last year, come back just as strong this season.”

Lindenmeyer, a second-team I8FA North All-Association offense selection and second-team defensive back in 2021, is the only senior on the roster this year. He’ll be supported by a number of returning juniors, however, including running backs Landon Whelchel and Kye Koch, tight end/defensive end Brennan Blaine, and two-way linemen Trey Payne and Ian Sundberg.

Blaine was another second-team all-association offense pick last year, as well as a first-teamer at defensive end. Whelchel and Koch return to mitigate the loss of Joe Quest, an all-association honorable mention a season ago.

Amboy players run through drills Thursday, July 28, 2022 at the high school. First day of IHSA football practice is just over a week away for local teams.

When asked about who he expects to be key contributors this year, Payne offered up several names.

One player he thinks is primed for a big season is sophomore fullback Quinton Leffelman.

“Tucker Lindenmeyer, he’s our only senior. He’s a really good leader, and he’s a really good football player,” Payne said. “One kid that I think is going to have a really good year is our sophomore fullback, Quinton Leffelman. He worked his butt off all summer long. Also, the junior class has some good leaders, and that’s what we have the most of this year. I expect Blaine, Whelchel, Koch and Payne to all step up and fill those leadership spots that we lost from the graduating class from last year.”

The 8-man North 2 conference looks like it will have at least a few formidable teams again this year, with two-time defending state champion Polo standing out from the rest.

“It’s a tough schedule. We’ve gotta play some tough teams. We open up at Polo, the two-time defending state champs, and Ted Alston and his coaching staff do a wonderful job there year in and year out,” Payne said. “We’ve got to play Milledgeville, Jason Wroble – they’re always fundamentally sound and play hard and play physical. You’ve got Orangeville, Aquin, so it’s a good, tough schedule. We wouldn’t want it any other way. You play a tough schedule, it helps you once you get in the playoffs.”

Whelchel and Sundberg are excited to get another shot at the top teams in the conference this year.

“I think it’s set up pretty nice how we’ve got the No. 1 team in the state [in Week 1], and I’m excited,” Whelchel said before adding one specific loss from last season he’d like to avenge. “That Milford game was probably one of our worst games that we played last year, and we want to make a better statement.”

“I’m excited to play those top teams again, and try to beat them like they beat us,” Sundberg said.

Amboy players run through drills Thursday, July 28, 2022 at the high school. First day of IHSA football practice is just over a week away for local teams.

Lindenmeyer sees at least three games that stand out on the schedule.

“Definitely Week 1 against the No. 1 team in the state, Polo, and Week 3 against Milledgeville, and probably Week 9 against West Central,” Lindenmeyer said. “It’s definitely going to be tough. I think we probably have one of the toughest conferences with three of the highest teams in our division. So it’s going to be tough, but I think we can take it on.”

Offensively and defensively, expect a minor change or two this year, but Amboy still will be staying true to the hard-nosed, ground-and-pound identity it has cultivated over the years.

“We’re still going to run the ball, line up in the ‘I,’ but we put in a couple more spread formations. We want to run the football, we’re Amboy, it’s what we’re known for, but you have to be able to throw the ball, too,” Payne said. “Some weeks, we’re going to have to throw the ball 30 times, and Tucker’s a good enough passer we can do that.

“Defensively, we’re kind of toying with the three-man front this year just because we have three really good down linemen and three really good linebackers. So we’re toying with that right now, going to see how that works. So that’s about the only change defensively.”

While they won’t truly know what have until after their Week 1 game against Polo, the Clippers have the expectation that speed will be an X-factor for them this year.

“I think we’ve got a lot of speed. I think we’re going to be able to spread teams out, be able to get the ball to three or four different guys, which is going to help us a lot,” Payne said. “We’re going to be able to get the ball to Koch and Leffelman and Blaine, and then we’re going to be able to have Lindenmeyer run from the quarterback spot. And we’ve got some good athletes to throw to on the outside, too, so it’s pretty exciting to watch these guys right now.”

Amboy players run through drills Thursday, July 28, 2022 at the high school. First day of IHSA football practice is just over a week away for local teams.

Payne said two main starting positions are up for grabs through summer camp as fully padded practices draw nearer. One of those position battles remains wide open, while the other is a two-horse race.

“Our nose guard spot, we’ve got about five or six kids that we’re looking at to be the starting nose, but we won’t be able to figure that out until we start with the full pads,” Payne said. “But that spot and one of our tight end/tackle hybrid positions. That’s a position battle between two juniors right now. And they both look pretty good right now. Those battles will be determined once we get full pads and you see what the kids have.”

Even though there are three starting spots to fill on each side and the depth-chart order yet to be determined, returning players such as Lindenmeyer, Sundberg and Whelchel have full confidence that the vacated roles will be filled capably.

“A lot of our team is young, so we still have a lot of returning kids, and it still fills out pretty nicely,” Lindenmeyer said. “We lose a lot of key players, but we’re bringing in more key players for this season, so it’s still going to be good.”

“Overall, we’ve got some players that can replace all of the players that we had last year,” Sundberg said.

“We lost a lot of good players from last year, but we’re bringing in a lot of good talent,” Whelchel added. “We feel pretty good about them. I’ve been playing with them my whole life, and I put all my trust in them.”

Amboy-LaMoille-Ohio’s first game is Aug. 26 at Polo, with a 7 p.m. kickoff.