Cougars take on North Boone in 3A playoffs
GALVA –– Mid-County is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and will make a 140-plus mile journey to Poplar Grove to battle North Boone in the opening round of the IHSA class 3A playoffs. The Cougars bring a two-game win streak and a 6-3 record into Saturday’s showdown with the 7-2 Vikings.
After losing to Mercer County in each of the previous three seasons by seven points each time, Mid-County finally ended up on the other end of the spectrum, with a 28-21 come-from-behind win last Friday to earn the Cougars an automatic playoff bid. It was the program’s first-ever win over the Eagles.
“Regardless of what offense or defense you run, there just comes a point in time where you just say ‘we’re gonna win’ and Friday night was it,” said Mid-County’s 4th year head coach Gary Denhart. “When we were down 14 points, there was no finger-pointing, everything was positive. I don’t know if I’ve ever been down at halftime like that and walk in the locker room and the attitude was ‘don’t worry coach, we’re gonna win’.”
Denhart credits a large senior class for keeping the team together any time the Cougars faced adversity this season and week nine was just another example of that.
“Last year we had a good senior class and some good athletes, but we didn’t have the togetherness that this team does,” he said. “The contributors in this senior class – they’re the glue. They’re the ones that pull everything together and as a coach, obviously winning is great, but that’s been the most rewarding thing about this season is these kids coming together.”
Without the win over Mercer County, due to a low number of playoff points, the Cougars would have been left out of the playoffs. Looking back further on the schedule, a 2-0 win over Ridgewood Sept. 7 on a muddy, sloppy field meant much more in the big picture than a measly win in the LTC opener.
“Looking back, we had such a nice October and to turn around and look at what that game meant, wow,” Denhart said.
Last season the Cougars had also faced a win-or-go-home week nine, which resulted in a 28-21 loss to Stark County, allowing the Rebels into the playoffs while the Cougars were left out with a 4-5 record. This time around, Denhart avoided the playoff speech and challenged his team to just go beat Mercer County.
“The one thing we did last week, we all agreed no playoff talk,” he said. “I walked in on Monday and said this is the last time the word playoffs is coming out of my mouth. This is about Mercer County. This is about you guys stepping up to the plate and winning week nine.”
The Cougars did step up and the words “playoffs” and “North Boone” became the focal point as Mid-County prepared for its opponent out of the Big Northern Conference that puts up points in bunches to the tune of 38 per game.
The Vikings have won four straight games and are led by senior do-it-all quarterback Britton Morris, who spearheads a prolific spread attack. Morris averages 30 pass attempts per game, has thrown for 2,383 yards this season and has a 27:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s also the team’s leader in rushing attempts (107), rushing yards (483) and rushing touchdowns (11).
After Morris, the next leading rusher has just 35 carries on the year. It’s a safe bet that containing the dual-threat QB will be top priority for the Cougars.
“I’ll tell you what concerns me is their quarterback,” Denhart said. “He’s not their entire offense, but he is a runner and a thrower. They get in shootouts and we don’t want to get in a shootout with them.”
A spread offense like this can’t be successful without weapons on the outside and North Boone has plenty of those. Four players have caught at least 15 passes on the season, but the go-to receiver for Morris has been Ethan Rydell. At just 5’9”, Rydell has hauled in 70 passes this season for 980 yards and 11 scores. The shifty senior wideout is 14 catches away from tying for 20th place in IHSA history for the most receptions in a season.
North Boone has scored 40-plus points in each of the last three weeks and keeping the Viking offense on the sideline could be the best way for Mid-County to suppress the potent attack. An ideal way for the Cougars to do that is to sustain long drives with a strong running game and not turn the ball over.
“The key to the game is containing that quarterback and not turning the ball over. I would like to control the clock,” said Denhart.
North Boone is in the postseason for the second year in a row, but has lost its opening round game in each of its last four playoff appearances. The Vikings haven’t won a playoff game since 2004; Mid-County has never won a playoff game.
Mid-County is 4-1 in road games this season. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. at North Boone High School.
The winner advances to play the winner between Lisle (9-1) in the second round.