ALEDO, Ill. — As his team took possession with 5 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in Mercer County’s 26-7 win over Clifton Central, Mercer County coach Nat Zunkel reminded his team to finish the job.
There was no need.
The Golden Eagles’ defense already had done all that was necessary.
Mercer County stopped Clifton Central on four fourth-down attempts and wore down the Comets, allowing Zach Nelson to notch a pair of rushing touchdowns that sealed the game.
The Golden Eagles never let Clifton Central back in the game, getting revenge on the Comets for a 2010 playoff loss and earning a trip to the 2A state championship game with a semifinal win Saturday at George Pratt Field. Mercer County will face Belleville Althoff Catholic on Friday at 1 p.m.
“They were huge today,” Zunkel said. “Those kids play so hard, and I thought the scheme we put in front of them and the learning they had to do between Monday and Saturday, we were spot-on. We knew that (running back Logan) Gigl was going to get the ball and he was going to get yards. We had to limit the damage and we did that.”
The Comets (11-2) opted to hand Gigl the ball 33 times for 158 yards, but the Golden Eagles (13-0) never let him reach the end zone.
Mercer County was so effective at limiting the Clifton Central star’s damage that the Comets never once turned to him on a fourth down, even though two of their conversion attempts were for less than five yards.
“We knew we had to step up big there,” said Mercer County defensive back Bryce Skiles, who helped seal the game with an interception in the third quarter. “They were starting to gain a lot on first downs, and we couldn’t have that. Once we stepped that up, we did pretty good.”
The Golden Eagles’ defensive work allowed Tanner Matlick and the offense to exert their will on the Comets, who could not match Mercer County in terms of depth. Nearly all of Clifton Central’s starters go both ways, and Mercer County exploited that by attacking the Comets through the air early on, hoping some big plays would open as Clifton Central exhausted its energy.
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The strategy worked. Mercer County’s first score came when Nelson made several defenders miss and gained 57 yards on a screen pass, setting up a touchdown catch by Payton Holmes. Nelson continued to punish the Comets throughout the day, finishing off two Golden Eagles drives with a touchdown.
“We knew they would get tired,” Nelson said. “If we came out strong and finished strong, we would win the game. You could look in their eyes and they were beat. It’s a great feeling.”
As the clock melted away and Mercer County’s trip on Friday to Memorial Stadium in Champaign became a reality, Zunkel raised his hands above his head and the Mercer County faithful surrounded the field, celebrating the school’s first trip to the state title game since Aledo and Westmer consolidated into Mercer County.
“I’m kind of speechless right now,” Matlick said. “To do it with this group of guys that we’ve been together since we were this high is an awesome feeling. We’re one win away, and that speaks for itself. It’s an amazing feeling.”