When you win eight of nine regular-season football games, you're obviously doing something right.

With that in mind, Effingham High School head coach Mike McDonald doesn't intend to stray from the things that have worked for his Flaming Hearts club all season as it heads into its seventh straight postseason tonight at Klosterman Field.

"Once you get to the playoffs, you have to understand what got you there," said McDonald, who'll lead EHS (8-1) into battle tonight at 7 p.m. against Belleville Althoff Catholic High School (6-3) in a Class 4A opener.

"We're confident. We're 8-1 for a reason. We just have to play our game and do the things we've done all year. At this point in time, confidence is a major part of being successful in the playoffs."

Don't mistake Effingham's confidence for cockiness, however.

McDonald knows the upper bracket of the Class 4A field is loaded — the top four teams (Rochester, Champaign St. Thomas More, Mount Zion and Quincy Notre Dame) are all undefeated, and in the 12th-seeded Crusaders the No. 5 Hearts have drawn perhaps the toughest 5 vs. 12 matchup out there.

"(Althoff is) 6-3, yes, but they got beat by some pretty good teams," said McDonald. "They play some good competition and also have beaten some good teams."

The Crusaders' three losses have been to a pair of 8-1 teams (Marion, Cahokia) and a 5-4 Belleville West team that qualified for the Class 7A playoffs.

All-in-all, Althoff's opponents were a combined 47-33 this year, while Effingham's were 39-42 — with 17 of the 39 coming from Mater Dei and Mount Zion.

Still, EHS has to be proud of the season it has put together and has every right to feel optimistic heading into the postseason.

"We had a lot better game at Taylorville, so we feel we're primed to play well," said McDonald, comparing the regular-season finale to previous victories over Charleston and Robinson along with Effingham's only loss against Mount Zion.

"We've had years where we lost the last couple games going into the playoffs, and that's just not a situation you want to be in. If you don't play well in your last game, that's the last thing you've got on your mind.

"After coming out and playing well both offensively and defensively, we're back to where we were earlier in the season."

Earlier in the season is when EHS shut out five straight opponents — including sixth-seeded Mater Dei in its only loss of the year — by an incredible 212-0 margin.

That stretch ended with a 35-7 loss to repeat Apollo Conference champ Mount Zion, and this will be Effingham's first home game since that defeat.

"I think one of our problems in playing Mount Zion was trying to make too many adjustments to what they do," said McDonald. "We may have outthought ourselves. You don't want to do too many different things.

"If you start trying to trick or fool the opponent or change what you do to affect how they play against you — sometimes it affects you more than it affects them."

It all comes back to doing the thing you did well to get to this point, which has also has included playing well on wet fields over the last three weeks.

"Althoff will be the same way," added McDonald. "We don't expect a new offense or defense; they're going to do what they've done. They're 6-3 for a reason."

With the ground already soaked and more rain in today's forecast, it looks like tonight's contest will be another chilly, muddy affair — similar to the types of conditions the Hearts dealt with in sweeping their three-game, season-ending road swing.

Outside of a few fumbles at Robinson and Charleston, Effingham has still been able to do the things it wants to do offensively in the less-than-ideal conditions.

"It's nothing we aren't used to by now," said McDonald. "We practice in it every day. We've been playing in it the last three or four weeks."

Both teams run a lot of shotgun sets — Althoff works out of the spread almost exclusively — so keeping a handle on the pigskin will be a factor.

According to the stat sheets, Althoff has thrown the ball a bit more than Effingham. Time will tell if a sloppy track will hinder its game plan, although second-year coach Ken Turner expressed his desire for a balanced attack in a Wednesday evening interview.

By now, we've seen Effingham still exhibit the ability to move the ball on the ground in slippery settings; senior rushing leader Jaron Allred posted a team-best 171-yard outing at Charleston. Senior halfback Ryan Garland and senior fullback Ethan Fulk have also put up good rushing numbers down the stretch.

"That's the rushing attack we have," said McDonald. "We come right at you. That's where we've been most successful. We're going to try to do the same things.

"Just like the last few weeks, the offensive line is going to be a key to the game. How well we move the football and control the line of scrimmage are a big factor in being successful."

One thing helping the situation is the fact Effingham hasn't hosted any kind of football in a couple weeks; the varsity has been on the road since its Oct. 2 homecoming loss to Mount Zion, and a good number of the freshman and junior varsity games scheduled have been either moved or canceled by short-handed opposing schools.

"It's still really soft right now," assured McDonald. "It'll get torn up (tonight). There's no way it'll dry out. We'll have to take care of the football in those conditions."

Another edge that has to be taken into consideration is the fact that several EHS players have one or two years of playoff experience under their belts, while Althoff is returning to the postseason after a two-year hiatus.

"Sometimes that can be an advantage," said McDonald. "If you spend a lot of energy saying you want to make the playoffs, sometimes there can be a tendency to relax once you make the playoffs.

"Our mindset at the beginning of the year was that we would be in the playoffs; getting to this point is only half the job. Like I said, we just have to have that grind-it-out attitude and get after it every play."

Althoff also has to have several starters play on both sides of the football, whereas Effingham is able to platoon players on and off the field. If the Hearts play well from the beginning, that extra rest during the game could come into play in the second half.

Being able to platoon players has kept the injury bug from seriously biting too many Effingham players.

"We're as healthy as we've been all year long," said McDonald. "Injuries aren't bothering us. We have a good training staff and we give kids rest when they need it.

"By this time of year I think every team has had some guys sick; there's a flu going around and kids are missing school here and there. We're in the same situation, although I think we pretty much had everyone in school and at practice (Wednesday)."

And of course, EHS finally gets to play at home again.

"Part of the mental preparation for a road game includes getting ready for bus trips and unfamiliar locker rooms," said McDonald. "Obviously, those are things you don't have to think about at home. We're also playing at our normal game time, so there'll be a lot of things keeping us in our routine and in a comfort zone. It helps to concentrate on our jobs on the field."

That job on the field is to do everything it takes to have a chance at another week of practice and another game to look forward to.

"We set goals at the beginning of the year to not just be a playoff team, but to be successful in the playoffs," said McDonald. "Our mindset has been that way all year long, and now that we're in that situation it's time to accomplish some more of the goals we've set for ourselves.

"We want to be successful for as long as we can. It's going to be a tough game, and we just have to come prepared to play our best game."

IHSA Sets Ticket Prices

Once EHS gets to the postseason, Illinois High School Association starts mandating a certain admission price for its playoff games.

In this case, the entry fee to Effingham's game tonight with be $5 — a bit higher than the typical ticket price at Klosterman Field.

Also, there will be no senior, season or family passes accepted tonight. All students also will be required to pay for entry.

Dustin White can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 123 or dustin.white@effinghamdailynews.com.


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