Columbia High School football coach Scott Horner feels for Mt. Carmel coaches who have been busy this season with the conversion to a new spread offense. He’s been through it already. After years as a double tight end, run-oriented team, the Eagles made the switch in 2006. “That was certainly a trial period for us. There was a lot of uncertainty going in, but we’ve learned to like it and it’s been successful for us,” said Horner as he readies his club for Saturday’s first-round matchup against the Golden Aces in the IHSA Class 4A state tournament.

Columbia (8-1) is certainly no stranger to the playoffs, with 14 appearances overall including one trip to the state championship game during Horner’s tenure (2007 in Class 3A). But, he would have preferred to face an Aces program steeped in post-season lore until later in the tournament.

“I think anytime you get paired up with Mt. Carmel in round one, you might have hoped for a better draw,” said Horner, in his 17th year at Columbia, the last 12 as head coach. “We are very aware of the tradition and history of Mt. Carmel. That’s something our kids will have to deal with. But, it is what it is. If you’re going to advance, you’re going to have to play them anyway.”

Mt. Carmel (6-3) may present itself as a pass-oriented team, but given the Aces past history with the running game, Horner is trying to cover all the bases with the Eagles on defense. “We prepare for everything all the time anyway, because you just never know,” he said.

One glance at Columbia’s team statistics, and it would be easy to forget that the Eagles are indeed a spread team. The run-to-pass ratio is around 3-to-1.  But, there is a reason for that. With an average winning margin of 35.4 points by the Cahokia Conference champions, the second largest spread among the 32 teams in the Class 4A field, the Eagles haven’t had to throw the ball much.

“We have been able to run the ball a lot this year, and haven’t had to rely on the pass,” Horner said. “Anytime you can do that, coaches would rather run. A lot less bad things happen when you run the football.”

Leading the Eagles ground attack is 6-foot, 200-pound senior Charles Farris, who has 1,341 yards on the ground with 20 touchdowns. His per carry average is an impressive 11.8 yards.

Farris is built like a fullback with I-back speed. “He’s a load because we spread the field so much. He runs with a lot of power but has a lot of speed,” Horner.

Quarterback Logan Santanello, a 5-11, 175-pound senior, is next, with 655 yards on 55 carries. That’s good for an average of 10.9 yards per trip. A total of 15 players have at least one carry this year.  

Horner said “our whole mentality is to spread the field and if we can run the football that’s what we’re going to try to expose first.”

Santanello is 31-of-71 in the air for 776 yards. He has thrown nine TD passes, and has been picked off only three times.

The Eagles receiving corps appears balanced. Reed Greatting, a 5-9 wide receiver, has nine receptions, but is closely followed by three players with eight catches. One of them, 6-foot senior Cole Mallinckrodt, has the most reception yardage, with 308.

Horner says Santanello and Mt. Carmel quarterback Reece Metcalf are similar in the double threats they provide.

“He can throw the football, and he can run,” he said. “In the spread, when you’ve got a double threat, it poses an incredible situation for the defense. We’re seeing that this week as we get ready for [Metcalf].”

Horner said one advantage of the spread is the isolation of players it provides. “The toughest tackle to make is one in the open-field. That’s what you try to do, is put the ball into the hands of athletes and force the defense to tackle you in the open field.”

The kickoff is set for 1 p.m. The gates to the Columbia football stadium open at 11 a.m. School officials there are urging Aces fans to bring some type of seating with them to the game. Seating is extremely limited for visitors at the field.