Galesburg area football: Why is West Central among 8-man football's best?
GALESBURG — This is the week the best teams in Illinois high school football become playoff eligible.
All the state's 4-0 teams — like nearby Knoxville — can grab that coveted fifth win just past the halfway point of the season and are guaranteed a spot in postseason play.
For 4-0 West Central however, while a 5-0 record would be nice, teams like the Heat playing the 8-man game are not bestowed the playoff certainty accorded the state's 11-man football schools.
"It's the top 16 teams in the state that qualify for the playoffs," said West Central coach Jason Kirby of the 32-school Illinois 8-Man Association.
"I don't know if five wins qualifies us for the playoffs but it moves us in that direction for sure."
West Central will host Flanagan on Friday night.
The Heat, in their third season of the 8-man game, are playoff veterans. They went 9-3 and made the state semifinals last year.
That's after West Central was 6-0 in the COVID-inspired spring season of 2021 that did not include postseason.
Kirby, who also coached West Central's 11-man team for four seasons, revealed one of the secrets of the Heat's success.
"The entire fall that Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri were playing before we went to 8-man football, our staff watched games in those states to know how to coach 8-man football," he said.
"We had a pretty good idea before hand on what we needed to do."
Playing on a field 40 yards wide instead of the traditional 53 1/2 yards, 8-man teams line up offensively with the tackles serving as tight ends in a 5-man line and a quarterback and two running backs in the backfield. Defenses see a lineman, a linebacker and a defensive back missing from the traditional 11-man alignments.
"We've always been an option team and we're still running the option," said Kirby. Things haven't changed that much.
"The triple option is still the triple option and that's made the transition easier to be honest."
Kirby describes his defense as a 2-4-2 that sometimes looks like a 4-man front or a 3-1.
To the fans, the game looks much the same as the one they've grown to know and love.
"After about 5 minutes, people are saying 'That's football,' " said Kirby.
"Third down is still third down. You still have to block and tackle."
And the Heat do those things well.
They've buried opponents this season — posting 60, 62, 66 and 68 points in their victories.
Kirby is quick to list leadership from his nine seniors as a team strength but there's talent, too, specifically from runningback Kaiden Droste who has close to 900 yards rushing this season and quarterback Mason Karns who throws enough to keep opponents honest. His favorite target is split end Bryce Bigger.
Safety Parker Melbrum anchors the defense.
"Right now we just want to improve every day and every week," Kirby said.
"Our kids believe we can play with anybody in the state."
Thursday's Galesburg-area game:
Kewanee-Wethersfield (3-1) at Abingdon-Avon (1-3), 7 p.m.
Rockridge (3-1) at Monmouth-Roseville (3-2), 7 p.m.
Stark County (3-1) at United (0-4), 7 p.m.
Flanagan (1-3) at West Central (4-0), 7 p.m.
Peoria Heights (0-3) at Bushnell-PC (1-3), 7 p.m.
Ridgewood (3-1) at Freeport Aquin (1-3), 7 p.m.
Galva (2-3) won by forfeit over Yorkville Parkview Christian Academy (0-5)
Pecatonica (3-1) at Knoxville (4-0), 1 p.m.