It’s difficult not to look ahead when something you really want is just down the road.
But, by the same token, the Vandalia football team knows its hopes of getting where it wants to go – to Highland for another shot at Greenville in Week 2 of the IHSA Class 3A playoffs – will hinge on its ability to focus on what’s directly in front of it Friday night at Mark Greer Field, where the Vandals (8-1) will take on Flora (7-2) at 7 p.m. in the first round.
‘We’ve got to take it a step at a time,’ said Vandals coach John Stout when asked about an opportunity to avenge his team’s only loss of the year, a 14-7 Week 4 heartbreaker to the Comets. ‘You can’t look ahead.’
Especially against a Wolves team that is not the typical first-round opponent for an 8-1 team.
The Little Illini Conference program will be making its second straight playoff appearance, coming off its most successful season in 15 years.
And it was a surprisingly successful season, at that.
The Wolves figured to be in rebuilding mode after losing 17 seniors from last year’s 5-5 team, but it has turned out to be the best of head coach Skip Dillon’s eight seasons at the helm.
Dillon, who coached at Beardstown for 15 years prior to coming to Flora, credits his team’s success to an outstanding collective work ethic.
‘We’ve probably had more talented kids in the past,’ Dillon told WNOI-FM radio recently. ‘It’s not that these guys aren’t talented. … But they just bring a blue-collar work ethic. They love the game and know how to work.’
Feature running back Chris Beckham seems to personify an overachieving senior class that has transformed itself from a group that went 2-6 at the freshman/sophomore level to a varsity playoff team.
At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, Beckham isn’t a particularly imposing figure. But he has still managed to rack up 1,004 rushing yards in just 7 1/2 games this year with a relentless running style.
‘He really fights for extra yards,’ said Dillon, who talked about Beckham’s knack for fighting through would-be tacklers and exploding up the field. ‘To get 1,000 yards in 7 1/2 games is quite an accomplishment, but he’s obviously got a target on his back now.’
Despite having a 1,000-yard back, Flora will mix it up offensively.
‘We like to run multiple sets, and we try to mix it up and not be too predictable,’ Dillon said.
Sophomore Trent Tackitt has settled in at quarterback for the Wolves after some understandable growing pains in his first year as a varsity starter.
‘He’s improved throughout the year, and hopefully he’s going to continue to improve in the postseason,’ Dillon said.
Tackitt is one of several juniors and sophomores in Flora’s starting lineup. Several other seniors are also first-year starters.
But that hasn’t stopped a big offensive line from holding its own and the Wolves’ defense from limiting opponents to just 16.1 points per game. Do-everything junior Mychal Bush-King (DT/DE/LB) is Flora’s top defender.
‘The kids have really stepped up for us this year,’ Dillon said. ‘They started out kind of sluggish, but they’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on.’
Flora has also played a fairly tough schedule, accumulating 37 playoff points, while compiling a 2-2 record against playoff teams.
‘Flora’s a good ballclub,’ Stout said. ‘They play a good schedule and they’re going to come in here ready after getting a taste of the playoffs last year. We’re going to have to be ready to play.’
The two programs have no common opponents this year and have never played each other before. But the lack of familiarity does not bother Stout.
‘We really didn’t want to see a team we’d already played before,’ said Stout, who thought his team could end up drawing Staunton or Pana had the IHSA had divided Class 3A up into regional quadrants.
Instead, the IHSA ranked each 3A team 1 through 16, pitting the eighth-seeded Vandals against the ninth-seeded Wolves.
‘It’s good that we get to see somebody we’ve never seen before,’ Stout said. ‘That gives the playoffs that little extra special feeling. … It’s going to be fun.’
Flora will not be completely unfamiliar to the Vandals coaching staff, however, as first-year VCHS assistant coach James Moore got a good look at the Wolves in the first round of the playoffs last year, when he was an assistant at Greenville.
‘He kind of filled us in a little bit on what kind of offense they run,’ Stout said.
No matter what the Wolves wind up doing offensively, Stout is confident in his team’s defense, which has been highly effective at stopping both the run and pass all year.
All told, the Vandals’ defense has given up just seven touchdowns.
The offense also looked better – and more balanced – than it had in recent weeks in Friday’s 33-18 win over Carlinville.
‘I think our offense is on an upswing, and hopefully we can keep it going the next couple weeks,’ Stout said.
Perhaps most importantly, the Vandals are now a playoff-tested group that is not just happy to have made it to the postseason. Anything short of a victory Friday will be a disappointment.
‘The attitude of our kids – especially our seniors – is we’ve been there, done that,’ said Stout of making the postseason. ‘We want to get past that first round and we feel we can get deep into the playoffs.’
Stout also feels good about playing on Friday night, as does Dillon.
‘Hopefully we can get a big crowd out there on a Friday night, just like we have all year,’ Stout said.