CHARLESTON — Jerry Payne kept his postgame remarks brief, about 20 words. He knew exactly the phenomenon that occupied each of his players' minds.
“I basically told them the time that we’re meeting tomorrow and to go ring that bell,” Payne said Monday.
They rang it, all right, for the first time in front of a home crowd since Oct. 14, 2016, when the Trojans beat Salem in overtime. Friday, though, they left little doubt and sent everyone into anticipation with a 28-10 win over likely playoff team Taylorville. The victory matches the total from that 2016 season and the last four seasons combined.
Charleston led 21-3 at halftime, and after Taylorville marched into the red zone on the game’s opening drive, Charleston controlled the game. They dug in and forced a field goal. Taylorville had little trouble knifing its way deep into opposing territory, but every time except one wayward second-half drive, the Tornadoes came up short of a touchdown.
“We got on our heels, we regrouped and held them,” Payne said. “On the field goal, I told them that was a win.”
Taylorville ran 89 plays, 34 more than Charleston, but gained 2 fewer yards and converted seven of 15 third downs. Charleston, meanwhile, averaged 6.5 yards per play and faced only seven third downs all game. The Trojans turned all but one into a fresh set of downs.
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A downfield passing attack that had been largely absent clicked from the start. Quarterback Nick Cheney threw for 303 yards, three touchdowns and averaged 13.2 yards per pass. Nearly half of those yards went to Cory Spour, who scored three touchdowns and caught seven passes for 150 yards. At one point, per Payne, Cheney was 12-for-12. Nothing about it resembled the prior week’s output, a 12-point struggle in a loss to Mahomet-Seymour.
“It was crisp,” Payne said. “He was making the right decisions. It was the Nick we’ve seen in practice. Everything just clicked.”
Charleston (3-5) won’t be playoff eligible even if it beats 5-3 Highland in next week’s regular-season finale, but this season wasn’t about reaching the playoffs. They would have loved to, of course, but the goal from the start for Payne and everyone on the roster was to compete and reach the point where they expected to win the games they played. They reached that long ago.
“Those first goals were the goals that got us to where we are,” Payne said.
Payne admits now that had he been guaranteed three wins before the season started, he would have been happy with that. He is now, but when those results become tangible, expectations rise. Charleston, realistically, was within striking distance of a couple more wins and finding itself in the playoff picture.
Payne began the year humming the phrase, “What’s important now.” He ordered T-shirts with the letters “W.I.N” plastered on the back, and put a sign in the locker room. Then, the focus was being coachable and improving over the course of the year. Somewhere in there, Payne said, let’s win a game. It came on opening night. Naturally, the challenge was to win another. Then another. And now they hope for one more.