Features | Friday Night Drive

After breakout season, Reed-Custer looks to sustain momentum

Comets hope to expand upon program’s first-ever quarterfinals appearance

Reed-Custer's Jake Mcpherson takes the snap during the Veterans Assistance Commission meeting July 12, 2022

There were very few indicators that Reed-Custer’s breakout season was coming in 2021, but the Comets’ 10-2 season reminded us that sometimes it doesn’t take much to spark a breakthrough.

Heading into 2021, Reed-Custer hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009, which also marked the program’s last winning season. By the end of last season, the Comets had secured the program’s first double-digit win campaign and its first appearance in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.

What was the ignitor to such an impressive turnaround? Quarterback Jake McPherson points directly to Reed-Custer’s 56-34 win over Arcola in Week 2, a team that went on to win the rest of its games and its conference after the Comets dismantled them rather easily.

“We were all told that the Arcola game was the make-or-break for our season. If we lost that game, it would have been not great for us in terms of the season,” McPherson said. “But if we would have beat them, and we did end up doing that, and we dropped like 50 points on them, and it really opened our eyes to what we could do.”

From there the Comets kept opening opponent’s eyes, losing only once in the regular season to long-time nemesis and Class 2A state champion Wilmington, before earning wins over Peotone and Chicago Clark in the playoffs and before losing in heartbreaking fashion, 28-24, to Byron. The Tigers, the eventual Class 3A state champions scored with nine seconds to play to claim the victory.

“It sucked, but the thing that I think about the most was that our two losses were to two state champions, so there’s nothing to hold your head down about,” McPherson said. “It just makes me think we were one play away from potentially winning state.”

That same drive is shared by his teammates, many of which return as a large portion of Reed-Custer’s surprising 2021 squad was manned by underclassmen. They have been dedicated to ensuring another very deep run.

“We weightlifted last year in the offseason, but it wasn’t as intense as it is this year. We’ve been maxing out, and we’re all screaming and yelling,” McPherson said. “We’re all super excited for this season. We can really tell that we want it more. It pushes us a ton.”

Reed-Custer coach Gavin Johnston, himself a 2008 graduate and former All-State quarterback, didn’t have any magical explanation for what caused his program to complete such a meteoric rise.

“It was just the kids,” Johnston said. “They bought in. You look at our guys and they bought into the weight room, finally. And we just have phenomenal kids that they just understand and have pride in their community, and they decided that they weren’t going to be the whipping dogs of the [Illinois Central Eight] any more. And to finally turn the corner was really great to see.”

Almost all of that core returns to try to take another step forward.

“You can tell the urgency of the kids at practice is there as well, they aren’t taking any slacking from anyone out here. We’ve got a lot of varsity coaches, but we feel like some of these kids are like acting coaches with the number of three-year starters that we have,” Johnston said. “They know how important it is to them, and it’s nice for us coaches to see that it is just as important to them as it is to us.”

The biggest challenges Reed-Custer faces heading into the season likely comes on the offensive line where the Comets return only two starters. Elliot Cassem, the Comets highly productive lead running back, also has graduated and moved on to Western Illinois. Jace Christian, Reed-Custer’s all-purpose standout last season, now will assume most of Cassem’s responsibilities. Johnston and the coaching staff fully expect him to flourish.

With the returning presence that the Comets have the expectations have been raised, and they won’t be flying under the radar this time around.

“We’re going to be the hunted this year, and that’s OK,” Johnston said. “Sometimes all we need to turn things around is a little bit of confidence, getting a couple of signature wins really helped us, and I think carrying that into this year is going to take us a long way. Last year we were hoping to make the playoffs, this year it is a different goal.”