COAL CITY — Coal City and Geneseo have never met in varsity football, and according to Mapquest, slightly more than 108 miles separates the two high schools.
If you think that means the Coalers are unfamiliar with the Maple Leafs, think again. Even before they learned that Geneseo had defeated Sandwich 17-0 Saturday and become their second-round opponent in the Class 4A playoffs, many Coalers were at least vaguely familiar with an established western Illinois program that is in some ways similar to their own.
Geneseo is a four-time state champion, with its last title coming in 1982, and the most recent of its five runner-up finishes was in 2009. It last missed the playoffs in 1995 and has failed to qualify just three times since 1974. Coal City, which began its program more than 60 years after Geneseo started its own, has a state title and a second-place finish to its credit and is making its 23rd playoff appearance since 1987.
"It's quite a challenge traveling to Geneseo," Coal City coach Lenny Onsen said. "They're a great school with a great history and a fantastic following. It's a tough place to play. Last year, we went to Stillman Valley (a 28-13 second-round loss) and it was a similar situation. We enjoy going to places like this, but it's never easy."
In addition to a tradition of winning and green being their prominent color — Geneseo bills itself as the Green Machine — the Coalers and Maple Leafs have another thing in common — an opponent. Coal City's only regular-season loss came to Sandwich by a 14-10 final.
Geneseo's defense not only shut out Sandwich, it also produced the Maple Leafs' first touchdown on a Grant Burress 29-yard fumble return in the first quarter. Geneseo scored again on a Mitch Miller 3-yard run in the second quarter, and Kevin Wolak added a fourth-quarter field goal. Sandwich gained just 134 total yards.
"They play a lot of 5A teams in their conference (the Northern Illinois Big 12 West), where we play 4A and 3A teams mostly. I know they played Morris (a 43-0 Geneseo loss)," Coal City running back Ryland Tondini said of the Maple Leafs. "They only scored three points in the second half of the Sandwich game, but they did a lot better in the first half. ... Their defense can bring a bunch of pressure and force a lot of turnovers."
The Geneseo offense operates primarily out of a Wing-T formation. That could be considered an advantageous match-up for the speed-based Coalers defense. But after Peotone gashed the Coalers for 234 rushing yards on 56 carries in their 27-20 victory in the opening round, the Coalers know they must improve.
"It's up to us to step up and play a more physical game. We didn't play physical enough (against Peotone)," Coal City linebacker Nate Natyshok said. "We have to play with a sense of urgency, and know that every game, every play can end our season."