MOWEAQUA — Coming off an 8-4 season, one that saw Central A&M reach the quarterfinals before falling to Argenta-Oreana 56-21, Raider coach Brent Weakly thought the 2019 team would be good.
"I thought we would be pretty successful," said Weakly, a 2002 Central A&M grad and former assistant coach at Sullivan-Okaw Valley and Shelbyville. "I thought we would be in the upper echelon of our conference. We had to play well to get those wins."
The Raiders were 4-3, finished fourth in the Central Illinois in 2018 and returned six starters on offense and eight on defense.
Central A&M is led by 6-4, 190-pound senior quarterback Connor Heaton, who has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 2,120 yards and 30 touchdowns with only one interception. He averages 192.7 yards per game and 18.3 yards per completion. He has also had 69 carries for 654 yards and 16 touchdowns. In 2018 he threw for 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns and ran for 473 yards and nine touchdowns.
"We have got a lot of three-year starters on both sides of the ball," Weakly said. "They have been in our system for four years. The seniors have been in a lot of big games not only in football but also basketball (reached the 1A supersectional in 2017-18). There is nothing too big or too small. I have put in something new for a week and they only have to rep it once or twice and then they are ready for it."
Brady Patton, a 5-6, 150-pound junior who has 56 carries for 1,082 yards, has scored two touchdowns. Connor Hutchins, a 6-4, 190 pound senior, is averaging 45.4 yards per game with a total of 13 touchdowns on the ground. He has caught a team-high 45 passes for 611 yards and five touchdowns. Jacob Paradee, a 5-10, 160-pound senior, has 42 receptions for 1,046 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Central A&M averages 47.3 points per game and has scored at least 28 points in every game. Defensively, the Raiders allow 15 points per game and have only allowed 20 points or more on three occasions.
"We changed some schemes a little bit as we play an odd front now," Weakly said. "It gives us more speed on the field. Our three down linemen can do a good job of stopping the run and so far we have been able to do that. Last week was the first time we faced an option type team and I think it made us better. We have to stop the run if we are going to be successful."
Central A&M played just two Class 1A teams during the regular season in Warrensburg-Latham and Meridian. Five opponents were in Class 2A, one in Class 3A and one in Class 4A.
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"Our schedule and our conference helped us be an upper-echelon team for the postseason," Weakly said.
The season started with a 41-6 win over Westville and was followed by a 42-6 win over Nokomis/Ramsey, a Class 2A playoff team. Central A&M downed Tuscola, a Class 2A playoff team, 49-14.
"That win set the tone for the rest of the season," said Weakly whose team then beat W-L 42-14 before nipping Decatur St. Teresa, which is in the 2A quarterfinals, 28-26. A 55-13 win over Shelbyville was next, followed by a 42-6 triumph over Class 4A playoff team, Clinton. The regular season ended with a 42-12 win over Meridian and a 55-14 triumph over Sullivan-Okaw Valley. It marked the first time since 2001 when the Raiders lost in the Class 2A championship game that they had a perfect regular season.
In the first round of the playoffs, Central A&M beat Havana 55-20. The Raiders beat Fisher 69-34 in the second round.
As for pleasant surprises, Weakly mentioned Hutchins, who has 504 rushing and 611 receiving yards, as well as Hunter Gregory and Brennen Simmons and Jarrett Robertson along with Lane Whitney.
"Hutchins is a 50/50 guy and we had been tinkering with him," Weakly said. "He had been a tight end and wide receiver only, during the week of Westville we put him in the backfield and he did a good job and we haven't looked back. Gregory is the starting inside linebacker and has done a good job for us. Simmons is an outside linebacker and upfront the two sophomores in Whitney and Robertson have done a really good job."
The top tacklers on the team are Pardee and Hutchins, who average 5.5 and 5.3 tackles per game, respectively. Jeske Maples, a 6-2, 240-pound lineman, leads in tackles for a loss with 17. The Raiders average 5.5 tackles for loss a game as well as one fumble recovery and 1.5 interceptions per contest.
Weakly was the coach in 2016 and 2017 in the two recent contests against the Purple Riders.
"It was Lindsey's first game (2017) and after that game, we felt like they were a really good team," Weakly said. "His teams are disciplined and he does a really good job. I know they will be a handful this week."