Moline High School football is a win away from ending Sterling's reign.
The Golden Warriors have won the Western Big 6 title in both seasons since they joined the league in 2019, and Sterling has beaten Moline both times in its blistering 17-1 start to WB6 play.
That could change Friday.
The Maroons and Golden Warriors face off Friday night for the conference title, an accomplishment Moline hasn’t been able to achieve since winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and ’18.
“I think it's exciting to earn an opportunity to play in a game like this, and our guys appreciate that and understand not the magnitude necessarily, but just the opportunity that they get to play for a conference title,” Moline coach Mike Morrissey said. “We get to go against a really good football team this week, so obviously it’s exciting. But the energy level really in our practices has been the same over the course of the season, and it’s no different this week. We've been pretty lucky to be able to sustain that. These guys are excited and ready to go.”
Moline has earned the opportunity to play for the top spot in the WB6 because the Maroons have simply been unstoppable on both sides of the ball since the start of conference play. The defense has recorded four straight shutouts, resulting in a combined score of 187-0.
“Oh man, I freaking love this defense,” Moline linebacker Amir Lomas said. “We trust each other, and if someone makes a mistake, someone is there to do the job. We are always on the same page. Everyone always keeps the momentum up. I’d do anything for them.”
The defense is allowing just 9 points per game this season, a number that is far and away the lowest amount of any team in the WB6 — outside of Sterling. The Golden Warriors allow 15 points per game but allowed 35 to Rock Island on Friday. The Rocks were able to find success through the air, with quarterback Eli Reese connecting with receiver Marion Anderson for three touchdowns.
It’s a fact that Moline is aware of, but the Maroons aren’t going to change their offensive game plan because of it. And for good reason.
“I think both teams would prefer to run the ball,” Morrissey said. “I think we are definitely both run-oriented. We spread it out a little bit more with our run game as far as different guys carrying the ball, but Sterling’s power and counter game is really good. They’ve hung their hat on that the last few years and have been really successful with it. They have great backs. We will have our hands full with that, for sure.”
The matchup between Moline and Sterling features the top two backs in the conference. The Golden Warriors’ Antonio Tablante leads all WB6 backs with 796 rushing yards. But the Maroons’ Riley Fuller is close behind in second with 728 yards.
“I only run well because of our line,” Fuller said. “They make all the holes, we just run through them. You can give the credit to them. I want to take none of it. Obviously, I have to make a few moves here and there, but only when I’m able to do that.”
It’s an offensive line that has carried the Maroons offense all season. Moline averages 41 points a game and has the top quarterback/receiver duo in the league. Through seven games, senior receiver Matthew Bailey leads the WB6 in receiving yards with 535. Quarterback Alec Ponder is second in the WB6 with 1,070 passing yards. It’s a connection that has the talent to mirror, or exceed, the stat line Reese/Anderson put up against the Golden Warrior defense Friday.
“We’re going to take advantage of whatever they give us,” Morrissey said. “We are not super stubborn, so we’re not just going to run the ball. If they do some things defensively that give us a chance to throw a little bit more, we’ll do it. We’ve done it in the past. These guys are anxious for any opportunity they get offensively that helps their team be successful.”
The Moline players are anxious because during the spring season, the Maroons had Sterling on the ropes. Moline had a 21-point lead in the first half before falling 36-34 at Browning Field, a loss that is still in the minds of many Moline players.
“We know they’ve beat us every year, and even though last year was a close game, we just shut down in that second half and couldn’t do anything,” Fuller said. “I think the motivation is what’s going to really push us this year, especially with the success we’ve already had.
“I don’t think anybody wants to stop now. We’ve been talking about this game all year. This is something we’ve been waiting for. We knew that it was going to happen.”
While the Moline players and coaches insisted this was a normal week, the intensity at practice was at a different level. When the drills wrapped up, the coaches called the team together for a huddle that lasted 10-15 minutes. Three different coaches spoke up to motivate the young athletes before Friday’s matchup. The importance of the game was undeniable.
“Obviously, there’s some different things going on with this game and it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Morrissey said. “The way their band, community and fans rally behind their school, we anticipate it being a really fun place to play on Friday night. But at the same time, once that whistle blows, all of that gets blocked out.”
The Moline seniors were just freshman when the Maroons won back in 2018, so no one has experienced winning the WB6 title. And it’s something everyone won’t take for granted.
“It would be a big win,” Fuller said. “It would be big because conference champions is something not a lot of people could say. I've asked people, too. I was like, ‘Doesn't it feel good to be put in this opportunity to be able to take a conference championship home?’ And everyone was like ‘Yeah, it does.’