Mercer County hopes for better start in 2022 | High School Football –

ALEDO — There wasn’t much separating the Mercer County High School football team last season from a Lincoln Trail Conference championship.

A combination of factors resulted in the Golden Eagles finishing one game shy of a title share with a 6-2 league record, 6-4 overall.

Injuries and a battle with COVID-19 that sidelined several players resulted in a Week 2 forfeit loss to Knoxville that hampered Mercer County right out of the gate.

That forfeit led to the Blue Bullets (8-2) and another first-year LTC member, Abingdon-Avon (10-2), sharing the conference crown with 7-1 records.

Six of the Lincoln Trail’s nine teams qualified for the IHSA postseason last season, so Mercer County is looking for a faster start in 2022.

“One of our goals is to win the LTC crown, but to get there, we’ve got to do the daily things and focus on the smaller steps,” Mercer County head coach Andrew Hofer said. “It’s going to be another good race in the LTC, so we need to continue on the right path.

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“We want to try to get out of the gates faster and put ourselves in a better position (to win the Lincoln Trail).”

Last fall, the Golden Eagles dropped three of their first four games, including a 38-14 setback to eventual IHSA Class 1A quarterfinalist Abingdon-Avon in Week 4, as they waited for their lineup to regain its health and return to full strength.

Once that happened, MerCo hit its stride with a five-game winning streak that ensured it of a postseason berth for the 12th time in the program’s 12-season history. That run ended with a 33-24 loss to Sterling Newman in 2A’s first round.

“As we got healthy, last season saw us play to our full potential,” Hofer said. “Last year was challenging. We had four games impacted by COVID, with one being cancelled. That definitely made it a challenge. This year has been nicer in that things feel a bit more normal.”

Now, last season is very much in the rear-view mirror for Hofer’s club.

“We don’t think about last year at all,” he said. “There were a lot of things that happened that were out of our control. Right now, we’re focusing on the things we can control.”

Giving the Eagles a boost going into 2022 is what Hofer describes as one of his most experienced returning teams.

Among the key returners for Mercer County are a trio of first-team All-LTC selections, seniors Carson Kellett (offensive line), Owen Relander (defensive back) and Ian Willits (defensive line).

Relander had 31 tackles, two interceptions and broke up six pass attempts, while Willits had 30 tackles, including five tackles for loss.

Relander was also a second-team all-league selection at wide receiver with a team-high 291 yards and four touchdowns on 21 receptions. Fellow senior Javin Dellitt (defensive back) also earned second-team honors with 34 tackles.

Another Mercer County senior, Brecken Heinrichs, was honorable mention at offensive end. Other key returners include senior quarterback Matthew Lucas (56 of 81 passing, 594 yards, nine TDs) junior running back/linebacker William Fredrickson and fellow junior Colby Cox.

“All of these guys got a good taste of it last year,” said Hofer, whose team opens the regular season on Aug. 26 at home against reigning Prairieland Conference champion Farmington, which finished 11-1 and reached the 2A quarterfinals.

The following week, the Golden Eagles travel to Knoxville for their LTC opener. With Ridgewood going to 8-player football this fall, the Lincoln Trail will be an eight-team conference in 2022.

“I’m not sure (the LTC race) is our long-term focus at this point,” Hofer said. “I know it’s one of the biggest coaching cliches, but we’re taking it one day at a time, and focusing on ourselves, practicing and getting ready for Week 1. We set high standards for ourselves, and we want to reach them.”

Hofer feels that Mercer County’s opening stretch of games, including back-to-back home dates with 2021 Class 1A playoff qualifier United and then Abingdon-Avon on Sept. 9 and 16, will give his team the push it needs to maintain those high standards.

“That’s something that’s going to be good, particularly for this group,” he said. “It’s going to push and challenge them.”

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