DECATUR — Nicco Stepina looked down at his feet, laughed, then shook his head while reflecting on the time when he was first asked to become a passing quarterback.
Stepina, a Millikin junior, was a triple-option quarterback at Casey-Westfield High School, where he went 22-2 in two seasons as a starter. He was a decent passer, but an explosive runner.
Stepina originally was to attend and play at Army, but West Point's medical board denied Stepina admission.
When he transferred to Millikin in 2015 from a triple-option program in Lenoir-Rhyne, the Big Blue coaching staff at that time told him he’d need to learn a new, more spread-oriented offense in which his primary role would be to pass. Stepina wanted to play at Millikin, so he committed to it.
But within the first couple of weeks of spring football, he went into the offensive coordinator’s office and told him: “My head is spinning when I’m out there. I don’t know what’s going on.
“I kept thinking, this new offense isn’t going to work for me,” Stepina said.
But two years later, Stepina has successfully made the transition. Last year he was the conference’s most prolific passer, throwing for 2,467 yards and 22 touchdowns. Through three games this year, he’s been even more prolific while also cutting down his interceptions (he had 13 last year). So far he’s thrown for 952 yards and 13 touchdowns with two interceptions.
“I had to learn to read coverages and learn pass protections … it was a whirlwind as a freshman,” Stepina said. “But I just had to take it slow and learn new things every day, and I think each year, even as what I’ve learned has gotten more in-depth, it’s gotten easier for me.”
Saturday against North Central, Millikin faced a quarterback Big Blue coach Dan Gritti considers to be the best in Division III — North Central sophomore Broc Rutter, last year’s College Conference Of Illinois And Wisconsin Offensive Player of the Year.
Rutter, a Naperville Neuqua Valley grad, originally enrolled at Indiana State, but transferred to North Central, where he became the team’s starting quarterback as a freshman and completed 230 of 351 passes for 3,237 yards and 38 touchdowns. So far this year he’s passed for 508 yards and three touchdowns.
“His arm talent is off the charts, but he plays within the context of the offense — he doesn’t try to do too much,” Gritti said. “He knows his opportunities will come. And when you give them to him, he’s going to take them, and then some.”
But, Gritti said he thinks Stepina has taken the next step as a quarterback, and this game is the perfect chance to prove he’s Rutter’s equal or better.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who can make the argument that Nicco isn’t the second-best quarterback in our conference, and therefore one of the top 10 in the country,” Gritti said. “If Nicco goes out and has a great game and leads us to a win, I think you’re making the argument that he’s the best quarterback in the conference and one of the top five in the country.”
Rutler was 21-of-31 for 309 yards and two toucdowns in the 51-21 North Park win over Millikin last Saturday. Stepina was 25-of-44 for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
Jordan Smith, a 6-4, 195-pound wide receiver caught six passes for 115 yards. Smith is a Shelbyville grad as well as punter Wyatt Fox, a junior. On the season Smith has 12 receptions for 260 yards and three touchdowns as well as a punt return for 12 yards. Fox has punted the ball 13 times for an average of 42.2 yards per game. Stepina also has 28 carries for 178 yards.
Sullivan grad Bryce Farris, who played for Sullivan/Okaw Valley and is a 5-9, 200-pound wide receiver, has four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown. Martinsville grad Dakota Youngwolfe, a 5-11 228-pound linebacker, played in his first game last Saturday for the Big Blue.
In volleyball for the 11-3 Big Blue Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond graduate Emily Seegmiller, a 5-11 outside hitter and a junior, had seven kills in a 25-9, 25-14, 25-16 College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin win over North Park. On the season Seegmiller is third in kills at 2.30 and in aces with 16 as well as digs with an average of 2.62 per set. In addition Maddie Holland, a Shelbyville grad has played in all 55 sets and is a 6-0 freshman, while Mattoon grad Elle Drake, also on the team. Drake is a 5-7 outside hitter and a sophomore.