On paper, the start of the St. Joseph-Ogden High School football schedule appeared daunting.
Open up on the road against Monticello, a program that has made the playoffs every season since 2009 and owns a 2018 Class 3A state championship.
And a program that had owned the Spartans recently. Seventh-year SJO coach Shawn Skinner had never beaten the Sages, with Monticello collecting seven straight wins in the series by a combined score of 292-74.
All of that changed this past Friday night, though, with SJO leaving Monticello with a hard-fought 21-14 win in the season opener for both Illini Prairie Conference teams.
SJO (1-0, 1-0 Illini Prairie) didn’t commit any turnovers and never trailed against the Sages (0-1, 0-1), taking a 21-7 lead into the fourth quarter and withstanding a late comeback attempt by Monticello.
“We told the kids before the game, ‘Don’t blink,’” Skinner said. “When things go wrong, especially when you’re playing a quality opponent like Monticello, you turn the page and go. That’s what we did.”
It helps when the Spartans were able to move the ball effectively and also force two turnovers. Junior Garret Denhart and senior Ty Pence each came down with crucial interceptions for SJO.
Junior quarterback Logan Smith impressed in his first varsity start, completing 11 of 20 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Pence and sophomore Coy Taylor were Smith’s primary targets, with Pence catching four passes for 89 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown grab and a 13-yard touchdown catch.
Taylor had six catches for 70 yards, with senior Aidan Moberg also bringing in a six-yard pass.
Alex Funk paved the way for the SJO run game, compiling 128 rushing yards on 14 carries and one touchdown, with Funk finding the end zone from 1 yard out. Funk rattled off five runs of at least 14 yards.
“When you’ve got guys like Ty, Coy and Alex, you’ve got a lot of weapons on offense,” Skinner said. “They did a tremendous job.”
Now, the task is for the Spartans to keep their early run of success intact against another area powerhouse program. Unity visits Dick Duval Field for a 7 p.m. kickoff this Friday night in St. Joseph.
The Rockets — who have won three straight in the series against SJO and seven of the last 10 games between the two rivals — are coming off a 34-12 loss at Prairie Central in their season opener.
This Friday’s game marks the only home game for SJO at Dick Duval Field during the first four weeks of the season, with games at Prairie Central on Sept. 9 and at Chillicothe IVC on Sept. 16 to follow.