Analysis | Friday Night Drive

Nowhere but up for determined Eastland-Pearl City

Wildcatz return key players from one-win squad, prides on defense

PEARL CITY – With several new players in new positions this season, one might think that the first week of practice for the Eastland-Pearl City Wildcatz may have been one of growing pains, especially after a disappointing 1-8 campaign in 2021.

That’s not the case, according to coach Jared McNutt.

The Wildcatz have high hopes of returning to the upper echelon of the rough-and-tough Northwest Upstate Illini Conference this season, eight years removed from a Class 2A state championship, and three years from its last conference championship and 2A semifinal appearance.

Two big improvements over the offseason, and after the first week of practice, have been team unity and defense.

“We are further ahead now than we were last year at this point, which is a good sign,” McNutt said. “We got a lot of guys stepping into different roles that they weren’t normally at last year, and we have some transfers from running back and wide receiver to offensive and defensive line, and they’re picking it up real quick.”

Senior Carsen Heeren is the only returning all-conference player. He split his time between several positions, chiefly at wide receiver, but will be entrenched under center as the Wildcatz’s starting quarterback, and play linebacker on the other side of the ball. Last year, Heeren led the receiving corps with nine catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Now, he and his fellow seniors are helping their teammates get accustomed to other positions.

“We’re getting better almost every day,” Heeren said. “Almost every guy knows what they’re doing all of time, and they’re always asking questions about things and knowing where they’re supposed to go.”

Eastland's Carsen Heeren catches a pass against Forreston.

Gone from last year’s squad are all-NUIC honorable mention quarterback and punter Kellen Henze – who also qualified for the 1A state meet in golf – who rushed for 520 yards on 100 keepers with five touchdowns on the ground, and threw for 619 yards on 66-for-100 passing with three more scores in the air; as well as fellow honorable mention choice Riley Schauer and his 120 rushing yards on 27 attempts from a year ago.

Returning, however, is the team’s leading touchdown scorer, senior Maddux Hayden, who scored seven TDs on the ground to lead the team, rushed for 401 yards on 77 carries, and also caught eight passes for 81 yards. He will also lead the linebacking corps in the middle; on defense, he led the Wildcatz with 34 tackles.

“We weren’t overly satisfied with last season, and that’s just based off of our record,” Hayden said. “Other than that, we saw many positive things. Moving forward off of that, we are improving even more with the core values of our team, and our relationships as team members are getting stronger and stronger than we’ve seen since I’ve been here. We have that team aspect this year, and with that, the overall mindset and results from this year will be better than we’ve seen in a while.”

Among the big men in the trenches, seniors Cade Monks Levi Burkholder will lead anchor the line of scrimmage. On defense, four of the Wildcatz’s top five tacklers come back: along with Hayden, senior Tanner Perdue had 33 tackles last season, followed by classmates Donovan Kuhlemier (32) and Burkholder (28).

“Our energy is high and our guys are flying around,” Monks said. “On defense, everybody is loving it. There’s going to be a lot of smash-mouth football. We’re going to be hitting teams hard in the face.”

Among the junior class, Brady Sweitzer is another two-way player who saw varsity time last season and will continue in a utility role at wherever he’s needed, be it wide receiver, running back, a backup for Heeren under center, and at linebacker.

“Our defense really has been our bright spot thus far; we have guys flying around making plays,” McNutt said. “Offensively we still have some hiccups that we need to clean up, but I think that’s going to come and we’re going to get there.”

Since finishing 12-1 in 2018, the Wildcatz have gone 7-17. Last season, Eastland-Pearl City was outscored 333-153; the closest the Wildcatz came to a win during the first eight weeks of last season was in a 41-40 two-overtime heartbreaker to Galena in Week 6 at Pearl City. They closed the season with a 36-7 win at Walther Christian in Melrose Park after giving up 50 and 63 points in the two games before that.

The lopsided final scores are something that the Wildcatz want to pull the other direction and put in their favor.

“[Coach McNutt] has put a lot in our heads about needing to be one, work together and communicate,” Monks said. “We suffer, sweat, bleed, cry out here together, and hopefully it will pay off on Friday nights.”

“This year we expect to be a better team that we have been,” Hayden said. “We’ve been focusing on being a team and who we are as teammates.”

The Wildcatz open their season with a big challenge, the annual “Route 73 Rumble” with Lena-Winslow in Lena, followed by Senior Night in Week 2 against Stockton – the co-op’s only home game this season in Pearl City. With the way the schedule worked out, the team will only have three games at their familiar confines, with the two dates in Lanark coming in Week 5 with Dakota on Homecoming, and Week 7 with West Carroll. Games with Forreston in Week 3, Durand-Pecatonica in Week 4, Galena in Week 6, and Fulton in Week 8 are road games. The Week 9 tilt with Chester will be played at Tremont High School near Peoria, approximately halfway between the Wildcatz and Yellowjackets; EPC will be the home team in that game. Both the Fulton and Chester games are scheduled on Saturday afternoons.

The rare nonconference game to conclude the season comes after East Dubuque joined a co-op with Southwestern High of Hazel Green, Wisconsin, creating the void in the schedule.

That first game is an attention-grabber: Lena-Winslow won the 1A championship last season, its fifth title since 2010.

“We couldn’t be more ready for them when the time comes,” Heeren said. “It’s going to take everything out of everybody.”