Photo by Bill Roseberry
The Alton Redbird offense huddles up in Edwardsville during a Week 4 Southwestern Conference game with the Tigers. The Redbirds enjoyed their first winning season in ‘14 since 2006 but missed the playoffs.
Both the Alton High Redbirds and the Marquette Catholic Explorers posted winning football seasons this fall. Yet Redbirds’ coach Jeff Alderman and Explorers’ counterpart Matt Bucher sought more in a season that ended too abruptly for them last weekend.
The Redbirds and Explorers aimed for and barely missed qualifying for the IHSA playoffs. Each team went 5-4 and finished shy of qualifying for the eight-class, 256-team playoffs that start this weekend.
It took 39 points for a 5-4 team to make it into postseason play. The Redbirds accumulated 38 points and the Explorers amassed 35 points.
So while they enjoyed winning campaigns, both experienced unfinished business.
“I feel for the kids because they worked so hard for the playoffs and I wanted them to experience it,” Alderman said. “The measuring stick for a high school football program is qualifying for the playoffs and playing in the postseason.”
Alton hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2006, when the Redbirds went 8-2. They’ve had a rough ride since then, but have improved in each of Alderman’s three seasons as coach.
After going 2-7 in 2012, the Redbirds were 4-5 last year. Their 5-4 finish this season was their first winning one since 2006.
“We want to continue this and not lose our drive,” Alderman said of the incremental progress. “It’s not an end-all. The freshmen went 6-3 this season, so that’s a very positive sign. We have some good kids coming back.”
The key for next season will be replacing 20 seniors, many of whom supplied memorable moments and unflinching leadership, Alderman said.
“Some of them stepped into big roles for us and all of them did great jobs,” he added. “The seniors set an example for our younger players.”
Ricco Gipson, a 6-foot, 250-pound linebacker, set the tone for the defense. Defensive back/wide receiver Joshua Lovings excelled on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Lavonte Hobbs emerged as a two-way threat, while backs Kareem Hamilton, Justus Pedrero and Larry Calvin made their marks. So did receiver Demonte Wigfall, O-lineman Zach Edwards and D-lineman Qian’te Wagner, among others.
The nonconference schedule will change next season. Alton will play Quincy and Rock Island instead of Pekin and Cahokia the first two weeks.
Bucher also sees a bright future for the Explorers since they will lose just seven seniors via graduation. Receiver Danny Holtz and linemen Riley Bamper, Chris Angleton and Cian Donovan could be the most profound departures.
“The seniors did a tremendous job of mentoring the younger players,” Bucher said. “We knew (with 35 points) it was going to be a long shot to make the playoffs.”
His goal next season is the same as Alderman’s task — get into the playoffs, somehow, some way.
“We have a bunch of hard-working, disciplined kids and it was enjoyable to watch them this season,” Bucher said. “They were truly a ‘blue collar team’ and ready to go every day in practice.”
He noted, “It was a very cohesive unit and they understood the importance of working together. We had to grind it out on offense this season. Last year (2013), we had more of a big-play offense.”
Quarterback Trey Aguirre, backs Brock Terry, Liam Maher and Brady McAfee, plus receiver Jesse Simmons, could be some of the players serving as the nucleus for the 2015 squad. The multi-talented Holtz could be the most difficult player to replace.
“It was fantastic to watch Danny develop as a player and a person,” Bucher said. “Without a doubt, he’s the best receiver in Marquette history.”
The Explorers figure to have the same schedule next season, playing Civic Memorial and Quincy Notre Dame in nonconference games.