Goss: Opening blockbuster: Wilmington at Coal City
By Dick Goss email@example.com August 18, 2013 8:18PM
Wilmington's Alex Zlomie (21) tackles Coal City's Jack Dibble. | Paul Bergstrom~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 20, 2013 6:19AM
Army-Navy, Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn have nothing on Wilmington-Coal City.
To fans in the two towns, a football season never can be a complete success if you lose to your neighboring rival.
Wilmington will visit Coal City when the season begins Aug. 30. Last year, the Interstate Eight crossover moved to Week 1, and the Coalers escaped 13-12.
The two previous seasons, it fell on Week 8. Coal City pulled out a 20-14 victory in 2011 after Wilmington prevailed 40-19 in 2010.
We know the outcome is life-and-death to fans, regardless of their loyalties. I visited a recent Coal City practice to get a feel for the approach the Coalers are taking.
“Last year it was the same kind of hype, except we went over there,” wide receiver/defensive end Nick Peters said. “There’s a lot of anticipation.
“We’ve got to play them whenever, so it really doesn’t matter if it’s the opener. I just hope we win by a bigger margin this year.”
Quarterback Brennen Shetina noted how the fans revel in the hype and added, “from our (players’) standpoint, it doesn’t matter when. It would be just as hyped if this game was Week 9.”
The Coalers have some experience on offense but return only one defensive starter, outside linebacker Kasey Kaiser. Shetina, quick junior running back Jack Dibble (who missed much of last season with an ACL injury), Peters and fellow receiver Lance Cowherd — standout skill players — are destined to grab the headlines, at least until the inexperienced defense settles in.
“It’s great to have Dibble back,” Shetina said. “He and I run the read option pretty well. We have to get the ball in his hands.”
“It’s almost a flip-flop from last year, where we had a young offense and a good, experienced defense,” coach Lenny Onsen said. “It’s the other way around now.”
Wilmington is not overloaded with experience, either.
“We have to put new guys right into the fire, and so will they,” Onsen said. “When this happens, I hope our program sustains itself.”
Whether facing Wilmington in Week 1 is a positive in the long run is debatable, but Onsen likes the schedule for other reasons.
“Every day at practice, I get to say to the kids, ‘You better be ready. You know who you open against,’ ” he said.
And having the game in Week 1 allows the questions to be answered early.
“Jeff (Reents, the Wilmington coach) and I laugh about it,” Onsen said. “If we were playing Week 8 or 9, we would hear it all season: ‘How do you think you’ll do against Wilmington? Are you going to beat Wilmington?’ That does get old, and it’s the same for Jeff over there.”
But what about the “W”? History suggests both teams will qualify for the playoffs regardless.
“Winning or losing is important,” Onsen said. “It’s the way it affects the kids’ mind-set going forward. But playing well is probably the biggest thing.”
If dedication translates to playing well, Peters said his coach can put his mind at ease.
“If I had to describe us in one word, it would be hard-working,” he said.
“Our guys are stepping up,” Shetina said. “They are starting to mesh. We’re all real close, like last year’s team was, and we’re working every bit as hard, or harder.
“People say that because we lost all the defensive guys, we will be down. We want to prove to everyone that we can step up.”
Does that include beating Wilmington?
“Our goal is to win every game,” Shetina said, “but we know there will be bumps in the road.
“I anticipate the Wilmington game being another dogfight.”