Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2012, 7:42 pm

Mercer County's first full-fledged senior class enjoys home football finale

Comment on this story

By Terry Duckett, tduckett@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Mercer County receiver Payton Holmes lunges into the end zone with a first-quarter touchdown reception during Saturday's 26-7 Class 2A semifinal win over Clifton Central in Aledo.
ALEDO -- The Class of 2013 from Mercer County High School will be the first group of students to have completed four years in the district born of the '09 Aledo-Westmer consolidation.

On Saturday afternoon, the 16 senior members of the Mercer County football team made their final home game at George Pratt Memorial Field a memory they will take with them for the rest of their lives.

"This is your Senior Night, fellows, and that's how you finish,'' head coach Nat Zunkel exhorted his seniors following the 13-0 Golden Eagles' 26-7 victory over Clifton Central in Saturday's Class 2A semifinals, a win that sends Mercer County on to its first state football final in Champaign.

"It's awesome,'' said one of those 16 seniors, quarterback Tanner Matlick. "We knew this would be our last game here at George Pratt, and we wanted to make the most of it. All of us seniors came out here highly motivated. We had a chance to go to state, and here we are.''

Adding to Saturday's moment for the Golden Eagles was the atmosphere at their home gridiron, which hosted one of the biggest crowds in its long history as the always football-hungry Mercer County fan base's ranks were swelled by a large Clifton Central crowd that made the long trek across the state.

"This is an awesome venue and a beautiful field,'' said Zunkel, "and it felt like the people here were on top of you (Saturday).''

"I think they got here around 10 a.m. to start tailgating,'' said Matlick. "You had the feeling this was a big game, and we got a ton of support from our community. This win was for our community, and I think we're going to put a big dent in Memorial Stadium on Friday.''

Just to have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the Aledo Green Dragon teams that called George Pratt Memorial Field home over the decades -- including six state finalists and three 2A state-title teams (1998, 2001, 2002) -- is something that also strongly appeals to the Eagle seniors.

"It's overwhelming,'' said wide receiver/kick returner Payton Holmes. "It's what we've wanted for the last four years. When the time finally came, we had to make the most of it. After we lost here last year in the quarterfinals (7-0 to Lincoln Trail Conference rival Stark County), we told ourselves we'd never let this happen again.''

One of the Golden Eagle seniors, nose guard Tim Willet, watched Saturday's game from the sidelines on crutches after breaking his ankle in the previous week's 33-21 quarterfinal win at Amboy. His classmates dedicated the victory to him.

"That's what's special about these guys,'' said Zunkel. "They play for each other.''