Undefeated West Central will meet defending champion Polo in 8-man semis

Barry McNamara
Special to The Register-Mail
West Central gets fired up before the game against Aquin in Biggsville earlier this season.

BIGGSVILLE — The defending state champions and the main challengers to the throne will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday for the right to play for the title of best 8-man football team in Illinois. 

In a bit of a twist, it will be the challenging road team, rather than the host champs, who will enter the game as the slight favorite. 

Coach Jason Kirby’s visiting West Central Heat are the last undefeated team in the 8-man playoffs. Their opponent and host will be the 9-2 Polo Marcos, who won last fall’s state title with a record of 13-0, including a 12-7 victory over Orangeville in the championship game, which was played at Monmouth College. The school’s April Zorn Memorial Stadium will once again be the site of this year’s Nov. 18 title game. 

When the playoff pairings were released, the teams seeded to reach the semifinals included the Heat, but none of the other top four advanced past last week’s quarterfinal round. In the top half of the pairings, fifth-seeded Amboy edged No. 4 Milford-Cissna Park 30-28, while top-ranked Decatur Lutheran fell 44-38 to eighth-seeded St. Thomas More. 

Polo, which entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, edged third-seeded Ridgewood 38-32. 

The No. 2 Heat bucked that trend of host teams being upset last Friday, not only posting a victory as the favored seed, but doing so by more than a touchdown. West Central defeated Milledgeville 38-14, scoring the last 24 points of the game to beat the talented Missiles for the second time this season. 

A 55-yard run by Kaiden Droste in the final minute of first half snapped a 14-14 tie. It followed a key interception by the Heat and a critical fourth-down conversion. The tie-breaking touchdown almost didn’t happen, said Kirby. 

“We were just going to run the clock out,” he said. “We ran a sweep to Kaiden, and he housed it.” 

In the second half, Droste reached the end zone again to make the score 30-14. Carnes tacked on the final touchdown with 3:47 to play. Droste finished with 174 yards on 28 carries and Parker Meldrum added 74 yards on 18 tries. 

“Our kids play hard, so it wasn’t a motivational thing we had to address,” said Kirby of West Central’s halftime talk. “We just needed to make an adjustment back to something we’d done earlier in the year against them.” 

Kirby knows he won’t have to motivate his team against Polo, either. 

“It’s hard for me to give a big rah-rah speech to the team at this point,” he said. “We’ve just got to be us. It’s just a matter of our players being technically aware, as they’ve been all season, and matching the other team’s intensity. Do both those things, and let the chips fall where they may.”  

How Heat, Polo measure up 

Looking at both teams’ games against Milledgeville provides some background on how West Central and Polo match up this season. 

The Heat defeated Milledgeville 64-36 in the regular season and then by 24 points last weekend. On Sept. 16, Milledgeville topped Polo 54-38. 

Friday night’s game will be the rubber match in what could be called the biggest 8-man rivalry in the state. It doesn’t have the longevity of some of the other small-school matchups, but the Heat and the Marcos have been elite programs since they first met in 8-man football in the spring of 2021. 

In that pandemic-shortened spring season, there were no playoffs, but West Central could make the case for being the state’s top team. The Heat didn’t lose a game, and that included a convincing 42-6 victory over Polo. In the previous 8-man season — completed in the fall of 2019 — Polo had gone 13-0 in its first year of 8-man and won the state championship. 

West Central and Polo met again later in 2021 and, just like this season, a berth in the state championship game was on the line. This time, it was Polo that came out on top in convincing fashion, beating the Heat 50-14. 

The story was the Marcos’ ability to break off explosive plays. They reeled off five scores of 45 yards or more en route to a 42-0 lead. Polo won the tackling and physical aspects of the contest, outgaining West Central 509-199. 

The good news for Polo is that Brock Soltow, who rushed for 182 yards in that game, is back. Soltow “has the ball in his hands about 80% of the time,” said Kirby of the junior, who’s topped the 2,000-yard rushing plateau for the season. “He’s somebody we’ll have to account for.” 

The bad news for Polo is that it had to replace its entire offensive line from that state championship team. And more bad news came during the season, when Avery Grenoble, who ran for 258 yards last year against West Central, suffered an injury. 

“He was on crutches last week,” said Kirby of the senior standout, who also missed Polo’s first-round game. “That’s got to be hard for him. He’s such a great player.” 

The Heat know what it’s like to have a key player sidelined, losing twice last year when Droste was injured. But last year’s semifinal setback is the only time in West Central’s three-year 8-man history that it’s lost a game when Droste was fully active. The Heat are 26-1 in such contests. 

Polo’s senior class can make a similar claim. The group has only lost twice in the fall since they were freshmen, with both defeats coming this year against Amboy and Milledgeville. Their cumulative fall record is 35-2. 

Something’s got to give on Saturday afternoon.