All season long, the Deer Creek-Mackinaw rushing attack has been among the best in Class 2A, but the football team enters its 7 p.m. game Friday in a Heart of Illinois non-conference crossover game at LeRoy (4-2) without running back Preston Lester.
The good news is Lester, who suffered a sprained ligament and a small fracture in his femur, didn’t tear any ligaments and will not need surgery. According to head coach Job Linboom, the best-case scenario is the back is ready for the first postseason game, the worst-case scenario is Lester will miss the remainder of his senior season.
No. 2 Dee-Mack (6-0) is well-equipped to be without Lester, and Linboom’s focus is on Lester the person, not the player.
“The best news there is for Preston,” Linboom said. “Now, he doesn’t have to go through the much longer rehab.” ... “At least there’s a chance he could rejoin us in the postseason. If there was a tear, there’s no chance at all.”
In the meantime, all-state fullback Jared Reese will see more touches as competition stiffens and the postseason looms. Backs like Sam Cleaver, Connor Craig and Weston Sauder will each move up in the depth chart and get more carries, and Linboom will ride the hot-hand to compliment Reese, using a running back-by-committee approach.
Cleaver (145 yards, four TDs), Sauder (50 yars, TD), Craig (124 yards, two TDs) and Jacob Carnicle (230 yards, four TDs) will be tasked with replacing Lester’s 507 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.
LeRoy head coach BJ Zeleznik’s game plan is to stop Reese and his 850 yards and 15 touchdowns and the rest of the Chiefs’ rushing attack.
“They have several backs that run the ball well,” Zeleznik said. “Reese is the best running back we have seen this year.”
The Panther defense is anchored by Heart of Illinois Conference First Team All-Conference defensive lineman Alex LaMont. The senior has 60 tackles, 15 solo tackles and four sacks on the year. Brandon Bagnell (59 tackles, 2 sacks) and Austin Mullis (52 tackles) also round out a strong defensive line.
“This will be the best defense we’ve played so far this year,” Linboom said. “We’ve been giving special attention to Mr. LaMont. We know he’s really good, so we’ve been working our game plan around how we’re going to deal with him.”
While the Panthers will focus on slowing the Dee-Mack rushing attack, Zeleznik also knows quarterback Derrick Baker can hurt LeRoy through the air. Zeleznik credits Dee-Mack’s ability to stretch the field to open space for the run game.
For Dee-Mack, the focus will be stopping the Panther run game. LeRoy’s passing attack is nearly non-existent (10-27, 89 yards on the season), allowing Linboom and the Chiefs to shore up run defense throughout the week.
There is no “feature back” for the Panthers. Trevor Burlington (351 yards, six TDs), Dalton Noe (252, three TDs), Corbin Litherland (230 yards, five TDs) are among the 200-yard rushers for LeRoy this season.
“There’s no one particular guy that we have to key on,” Linboom said. ... “It’s all about stopping the run. With their balance, it will be a pretty good challenge for us as well.”
LeRoy’s two losses have come against No. 1 ranked Downs Tri-Valley and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley.