Sage fans large and small, young and old, Monticello natives and transplants alike united to fill Memorial Stadium the day after Thanksgiving, standing the entire game in rainy conditions to root the Sages football squad to victory.

There were thousands of them in attendance. As a matter of fact, it seems like the entire town came out despite the soggy conditions, and the figures back that up. With an official town population of 5,555, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 were wearing the purple and gold in the west side stands of the stadium come game day. 

There were plenty of former Sages gridiron specialists on hand, including players from the ‘50s to the recent past. A group photo taken of the football alumni showed about 150 former players making the trip to Champaign.

Were they possibly living vicariously through the 2018 team, the first football squad in school history to win a state championship?

"A little bit, yeah," said Tyus Welter, the son of head coach Cully Welter and a member of the 201 team that made it to the state quarterfinals but lost to rival Unity.

"I’m pretty happy for him," said the younger Welter on rooting not only for the players but his dad. "He’s excited to be here, and it’s exciting for the kids."

Jeff Clodfelter played on the Okaw Conference champion MHS team in 1965 – prior to the implementation of the football playoff system – and was a little nervous prior to kickoff.

"I wish the wind wasn’t blowing so much," he said, noting Byron’s stellar running game. "But I’ve been scared before, and these guys are amazing."

Bill Pike’s Sage football days go back even further, as he quarterbacked the squad back in 1957. He was not able attend the game, but was thrilled with the state title for his local team.

"We are so proud of you guys for being the first to win a state championship. It’s been 61 years since I had the honor of playing QB for the Sages and I still have good memories. You guys will have this honor your entire lives. Sixty-one years from now you will still be the first team to win state," Pike stated in an email to the Journal-Republican.

There have been Sage teams who have come close to the state title tilt, including the 1997 squad that lost by a scant three points in the semifinals.

"We had a pretty good team and these guys have gone a little further, so it’s neat to see," said Nate Beccue, a member of that team.

Beccue’s former teammate Justin Weidner – also in attendance at the pregame tailgate – was taking in the surroundings that are the IHSA State Football Championships.

"This is all new for us. This is our first experience here, too," added Weidner. "I’m pretty confident. I think they’ve got the squad to do it."

Tom Apperson is a 2002 MHS grad. As a football player, he was "glad to see a lot of alumni here, because this team has done what a lot of us wanted to do, so it’s really exciting. I’m happy for them."

"I think the whole community is proud," added Emily Weidner, a local 1996 grad who is now the principal of Monticello’s White Heath Elementary School.


‘Voice of the Sages’

Wendall Brock was a little disappointed he wasn’t in his familiar position as PA announcer for Monticello’s state title game, but was happy to be on hand at Memorial Stadium to support his hometown team.

"The voice of the Sages won’t be in the tower, but he’ll be in the stands," said the deep-voiced Brock, who has been on the microphone for Monticello football and boys’ basketball games for about 15 years.

The fan support started early when the school’s allotment of 1,000 tickets sold out three hours after going on sale on Nov. 19.

"I was shocked. I didn’t anticipate selling out," said athletic director Dan Sheehan. He admits that among a flurry of weekend activities he undertook after the Sages advanced to the state title tilt with a 40-14 rout of Carlinville was the mental exercise of trying to figure out how to return unsold tickets.

In retrospect, he shouldn’t have been surprised. A week earlier, volunteers turned out on a moment’s notice to clear the football field of snow that had accumulated two days before Saturday’s semifinal.

After putting out a social-media plea for volunteers, Sheehan said he "turned around and we had tractors, we had snow blowers, we had shovels, we had grandpas, we had moms, we had dads. Everyone was willing to lend a helping hand."

Almost as busy as the football team is the award-winning high school band, which spearheaded a 2:30 p.m. pep rally prior to the title game at the Monticello tailgate tent near the stadium, and also performed for six minutes on the Memorial Stadium turf at halftime.

"We’re just here to give the football team some extra support. It just gets everyone excited," said flute player Kaleena Davis.

Trombone player Jack Poundstone said he was looking forward to the "band jammin’" and "getting out there to watch our team win."

"We’re there to get the crowd amped up, which will amp up the players and get them to perform a little bit better," said sousaphone player Aiden Olson.

People are also putting on their prognosticating hats in trying to figure out if the Sages will come home with a state title. Brock fielded queries all week.

"I bet I’ve been asked that 100 times already since Saturday — what are our chances in the game?" said Brock, who believes the prospects are good, pointing to standout quarterback Braden Snyder, several reliable receivers and fine lines that "get overlooked."

Sheehan can’t say enough about the fans, calling them the team’s "12th man." Even the Carlinville players said support from the stands was a factor in last weekend’s semifinal game.

"That just goes to show how much influence fans can have on a game," Sheehan said.

The vastness of Memorial Stadium may have tempered that influence slightly, but not enough to cost Monticello their 12th man advantage.

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