Ricketts turns his focus from gridiron to the classroom at WIU
By Jeff Holt
Published February 18, 2021 in The Burg
Not even the best athletes in the world - like the famous Michael Jordan - know when the best time is to retire. Brett Favre was the same way in the NFL.
On a smaller scale, Galesburg native Matt Ricketts has
decided to step down from the game of football and
continue to motor on as a student at Western Illinois
University. He redshirted his first year at WIU and then
played the last two years for the Leathernecks football
team. Ricketts said it was a culmination of reasons - a back
injury, covid and overall what he thought was the best
decision for him.
You can't blame him.
His playing weight in college was 6-foot-3 and around 300
pounds. His effort in the weight room capped off at 330
pounds in the bench press and 515 in the squat.
Q: On the college level, what do you feel was your "true"
position to play at on the offensive line and why?
RICKETTS: Guard/ Center and definitely not tackle. To play
offensive tackle in college and D1 level you need to be
much longer and athletic than I was. Guard/Center seemed
more natural because of the type of play and my body type.
Q: Can you take me through one play or game that you'll always remember at WIU?
RICKETTS: Something that always sticks out in my mind is when we beat Illinois state my freshman year in Normal for the 100th game in the rivalry. Because of the
significance of the game and ISU being a good team as they usually are. Plus, it’s
always fun putting a beating on the Redbirds.
Q: Did you enjoy to pass block or run block more on the offensive line and why?
RICKETTS: Run blocking I would say, because it was easier than pass protection. I found it fun to read the defense and figure who the doubles were working to. Pass blocking is extremely difficult especially at the college level. It takes hours on hours of study to know the different protections let alone being able to have a quick, balanced pass set.
Q: How did it help you to redshirt that first year at WIU?
RICKETTS: Biggest thing was learning the X’s and O’s. College is a way different level compared to high school. You go from a basic offense at GHS to the same offense the Patriots ran with Bill O’Brien. Also, a year in the weight room to get the strength to be able to be on the same field as the older players.
Q: What was the most impressive place to play on the road and why?
RICKETTS: NDSU, the Fargo Dome feels like a big time place to play, super loud and great fanbase up there. Colorado state, Missouri State and UNI were also cool atmospheres.
Q: You had great family support for your games at Western through the years. What was it like to walk out onto the field - or leave the locker room after the game - and see your family there?
RICKETTS: Without a doubt the best feeling there is. To be able to have the support system I had with my family was unmeasurable. They were there for me during all the hard times like fall camp in August when you are physical and mentally defeated. So pretty fun when they are there for you after the games.
Q: What was your favorite meal after a game at WIU and why?
RICKETTS: Hard to beat Chicks but everyone and their mother goes there after the games. So, Chicks or Gelsosomo’s, we went there a lot after games too.
Q: Sports can teach you great things in life. What do you feel you learned from playing football at WIU and what advice would you give a high school senior wanting to play college football?
RICKETTS: College football is definitely an eye opener, it’s the ultimate humbling experience.
The biggest takeaways from my football career are holding yourself accountable
to the highest standards in discipline, focus and work ethic. Overall biggest thing
would be learning how to get back up on your feet after being knocked down both physically and mentally.
Advice I would give. Do what you want to do in terms of deciding to play or where to play. College football and especially D1 they pretty much own you and your time. So, don’t do it because of your friends, family, girls or what people will think about you. College football is extremely hard and none of those people are putting in the work you are. But the CFB experience is one I’m glad I had.
Q: Academically, can you talk about a certain class that you've enjoyed or about the classes that you are taking in your major and what you enjoy about it?
RICKETTS: Pretty much all of my ag classes I take I enjoy. WIU is an awesome school especially for anyone wanting to go into the agricultural field. Some classes in specific the precision agriculture classes, they are fairly new to WIU, so they are
Q: Your brother, Zach, has worked at a big-time level professionally in field
maintenance in Major League Baseball and in the NFL. Could you talk about a
memorable game you went to when visiting him?
RICKETTS: Every visit seems to be memorable between all the MLB and NFL games. It’s always a blast to see Zach, Christina and Peter. I always enjoy working on the field and hanging out with the players. Most memorable without a doubt is the Raiders final game in the Oakland vs the Jags. Raiders have the craziest fan base without a doubt, it was an electric atmosphere. Something I will never forget.
Q: If you could watch a professional game in person, what would it be and why?
RICKETTS: NFL probably Soldier Field or Oakland Coliseum. Nothing beats a cold day on Lake Michigan to watch football. And Oakland is an extremely unique place to watch a football game.
Q: Looking ahead, what does it look like for you with academics and your future?
RICKETTS: Hoping to continue with an MBA degree, should finish within the next year. Then hopefully find some work around western Illinois working with farmers.
(You can reach Jeff Holt at email@example.com)
Knox, Monmouth to begin play in the MWC
GALESBURG - The Midwest Conference (MWC) announced today that it will resume competition for the spring sports of baseball, softball, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, men’s outdoor track & field and women’s outdoor track & field. Member institutions, based upon campus and local realities of the pandemic, retain ultimate authority over the decision as to whether or not to participate in intercollegiate athletics this spring.
At this time, Knox College is optimistic that Prairie Fire student-athletes will be able to participate this spring under the MWC umbrella.
“We are thrilled that we have this opportunity to get our student-athletes back into MWC competition,” said Knox College Director of Athletics Daniella Irle. “This is a great day for our Fire family. While the seasons will not be normal, I know that our spring sport student-athletes are looking forward to championship competition after losing that opportunity last spring. As always, Knox College and the Midwest Conference are moving forward with COVID-19 protocols and the health of our student-athletes and staff in mind.”
“Our student-athletes have been through so much in the last year and have had to adapt, improvise, and overcome,” said Knox College Head Baseball Coach Jami Isaacson. “This is a great day for Prairie Fire and MWC student-athletes because it means that all the work they have been putting in over the last year will come to fruition in MWC competition.”
“It will feel good to get back on the field after only playing four games in the last 22 months,” added Knox College Head Softball Coach Erin Rutledge. “The team is very excited to show what they can do on the field of play. It is critical that our student-athletes are able to compete against someone outside of our own team.”
MWC schools are allowed to engage in spring competition against non-league opponents as long as they adhere to the league’s COVID-19 return-to-play protocol and end competition against non-MWC institutions 15 days prior to the start of league play in each respective sport. MWC competition in most spring sports is expected to start between late March and mid-April and will conclude by mid-May. Conference schedules will be posted online in the coming weeks but are subject to change due to the current health circumstances.
“It’s been nearly eleven months since our student-athletes have played against each other due to COVID-19,” said Ripon College President Zach Messitte, the MWC Executive Committee Chair. “While we are excited to resume league play later this spring, the Conference will continue to adhere to best practices in order to maximize the safety and health of our students, coaches, officials and spectators. ”
The MWC will closely monitor the COVID-19 environment on MWC campuses, local communities and at the regional and national levels as the ten member schools prepare for the upcoming spring season. At this time, no decision about spectators has been made so current guidance (no spectators at MWC events) remains in place and will be reviewed at a later date.
The Prairie Fire men’s and women’s golf teams compete in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC). At this time, the SLIAC is committed to pursuing competition in the spring.
Streaks take control of Western Big 6
By John Ring
GALESBURG - The Western Big 6 in girls basketball is about as tough and rugged as you’d want to see in the State of Illinois. Year in and year out, the games are physical, wins on the road are rare and it’s a feat to win this Conference outright.
2021 is no different despite the pandemic and the crummy weather in February.
The Silver Streaks won back to back games against Moline (on the road) and Geneseo (at home) and now have a perfect 6-0 record on the season (3-0 in the Big 6).
A desperate Moline fourth quarter comeback fell short in Galesburg’s 45-43 win, thanks in large part to reserve senior Lily Hudgins pouring in 16 points.
And thanks to Abby Davidson’s double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds), the overall game of Lauren Livingston (16 points, 7 rebounds) and Riley Jenkins’ clutch play down the stretch, the Streaks held off Geneseo by the score of 56-52. “They’re the defending champions of the Big 6,”
said Davidson. “We wanted this game. Riley was big for us and Kaydence Lydic played great defense tonight.”
The Maple Leafs fell to Quincy the night before and against Galesburg, played without three of their 5’10” players—seniors Madeline and Abigail Barickman and Brenna McGuire, all seniors.
They were off playing club volleyball.
But Geneseo tends to be tall, athletic and they always have a good interior passing game and they fought the Streaks tooth and nail. Tied 11-11 after the first period, Geneseo took their first lead at 16-15 but then a three-pointer by Livingston and a basket by Kaydence Lydic keyed a 7-0
Silver Streak run and gave them their biggest lead of the night at 22-16.
Still, the Leafs fought back and had trimmed the lead to 39-37 after three quarters thanks to the play of Kammie Ludwig (16 points). Danielle Beach—a midget by Geneseo standards at just 5’9”—tied the game up with a layup at 41-41 and played tough defense on Jenkins. But tied at 44-44, Jenkins scored her first basket of the game (and first in eight quarters). After Ludwig answered with a jump shot, Riley connected on a pair of free throws. Jenkins finished with 11 points, including several big free throws in the last two minutes.
The Streaks then capitalized on a Geneseo turnover and an Audree Peck basket for a 50-46 lead and they held off the Leafs for the win.
“Riley may have been off scoring for us but it didn’t affect the other parts of her game,” said Livingston. “We’ve come a long way from last year. Getting Abby back from a knee injury was big and we’re better in transition.”
With consecutive Big 6 wins, Galesburg is in control of their own destiny. “It feels great,” said Livingston. “We’re just taking it one game at a time. I’m proud of this team and the way we’re playing. We pick each other up.”
Next up for Galesburg is a road trip to Quincy this Friday night.
Willits named new Knox football coach
By John Ring
GALESBURG —Knox College Director of Athletics Daniella Irle announced Aaron Willits ‘08 as the Prairie Fire head football coach on Monday. Willits was selected following a national search that included over 150 applicants.
“We are excited to have someone of Aaron’s caliber and passion leading our football program,” said Director of
Athletics Daniella Irle. “He has led a nationally ranked offense, and consistently recruited tremendous
student-athletes to a highly competitive Midwestern program in a strong NCAA Division III conference. In addition to
his offensive intelligence, I was also very impressed with Aaron’s well-rounded knowledge of the game. He brings a
high football IQ to the table that extends well beyond the offensive side of the ball. He is very knowledgeable on the
defensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. Overall, Aaron has a clear and complete vision for the future of the
Prairie Fire football program, and I am confident that he can take us to the next level with his energy and work ethic.”
Willits, a 2008 Knox graduate, makes his return to Knox after a successful run as the Offensive Coordinator at
Concordia College (Minnesota). In his nine years with the Cobbers, the team went 62-28 and 48-24 in the Minnesota
Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). Willits coached 21 All-Conference performers, four all-region
performers and an All-American. He also coached two MIAC Most Valuable Players and the Buddy Bell Minnesota
College Impact Player of the Year. Former Cobber Brandon Zylstra, a 2015 All-MIAC performer, is now a wide receiver
for the Carolina Panthers.
“It means so much in so many different ways for me to be returning to Knox. It means I have come full circle, and now
get to invest in a football program and College that invested in me,” said Willits. “I get to work alongside coaches and
leaders that made a huge difference in my life, and now I can offer that exceptional experience to the next generation
of student-athletes on and off the field. Coming back to Knox, and to this position, in particular, is a tremendous
responsibility. I am truly honored, and ready to get to work. I want to thank Director of Athletics Daniella Irle, President Teresa Amott, and the entire search committee for allowing me the opportunity to present my vision for the future of the Knox College football program, as well as for their belief in my vision and ability to see it through.”
On top of his Offensive Coordinator role, Willits also served as Recruiting Coordinator, Strength and Conditioning Coach, and Equipment Manager for the Cobbers. Willits orchestrated over 150 campus visits in 2018, and the team averaged over 50 student-athlete commitments per year during his tenure. Willits plans to bring that same level of commitment to recruiting and retention to Knox.
“One of the things that stood out to me was his understanding of the strengths of Knox, the priority we place on cultural competency, and how to create and implement a recruiting plan that encompasses those elements,” added Irle. “He will develop a recruiting plan that will extend beyond the football program to complement other Prairie Fire teams and the College as a whole. I was also impressed with the relationships he developed with the student-athletes and staff he worked with at Concordia College (Minnesota), and in their surrounding community. Aaron is a team player, and will help us not only develop the football program, but the College and the athletics department as a whole.”
“The coaching staff has worked hard to create a class, and I want to keep that momentum going. The immediate plan is to find high-quality student-athletes who want to join our program and do things the right way on and off the field,” continued Willits. “Being from the area, I want to establish strong local recruiting ties immediately. That being said, I also want to broaden our footprint nationally, and I am willing to travel across the country to find players who want to do things the Knox way and be a part of our program. I have developed hundreds of relationships with student-athletes and recruits over my years as a coach, and being able to connect with recruits is key to the success of the program.”
Coming off one of the largest recruiting classes in recent history, the 2021 Knox College football team is poised to move up the Midwest Conference standings.
“The future of Knox College football is filled with potential. I envision a team of talented student-athletes who are going to hold each other accountable, and work hard to put a good product on the field,” concluded Willits. “This product will represent their efforts as well as those that have played in the past, and be something that the entire Knox College campus, community, and family can be proud of. And yes, I envision winning more football games. I want to create meaningful winning experiences for our student-athletes on the field without sacrificing the development of quality students and community members off the field.”
Willits began his coaching career at Knox following graduation. He served as Recruiting Coordinator for two years and coached the offensive line his first year and running backs in his second year.
As a Prairie Fire player, Willits earned All-Midwest Conference honors in his senior year when he rushed for 648 yards in only eight games. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Offensive Player in 2007. He rushed for 1,626 yards for his college career, scored 11 touchdowns, and carried the ball 377 times.
Willits earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in social science and secondary education from Knox College in 2008.
Things they are saying:
Terry Horan, Head Football Coach at Concordia College (Minnesota): “I’m beyond excited for Aaron, he has been grooming himself for this calling the last nine years as he wore many hats within our football program most recently as our offensive coordinator. Aaron is organized, competitive, knowledgeable, and a solid communicator to not only the players he has coached, but to the recruits and families he has recruited over the years too. Aaron is a team player, and he will be a huge asset to the Knox College Athletic Department as you will see him supporting every team, and you will see his football teams actively involved with that support too. I always have said the greatest respect that I can show Aaron is that I never wanted to see him leave our program…he’s someone that I trust, respect, admire, and I know if I give him a job to do he will get it done better than what I asked it to be. Way to go Knox College on this hire…you hit it out of the park with the hiring of one of your very own in Aaron Willits.”
Jim Davis ‘06, Former Knox Football Player, Hall of Fame Class of 2018, All-American, and Founder of The Good Athlete Project: “Knox just got one of the most hard-working, passionate, innovative young coaches in college football. For the past decade, Aaron Willits was a leader in one of the most competitive conferences in D3 football - week in and week out, he would prepare for top-ranked teams in the country. I’m excited to see him bring that expertise to the Midwest Conference. He knows how to recruit, and he knows how to win. I’ve known that since his very first day on campus, back when we played together. Even then, he had an uncanny ability to be both tough and kind: as a fullback, he could knock you down, and as a teammate, he could lift you up just as easily. This is the beginning of a meaningful era in Knox College Football. Truly, the fire is rising!”
Brandon Zylstra, Wide Receiver with the Carolina Panthers: “Coach Willits will be a coach and mentor to these kids. One of his best qualities as a coach is building relationships with his players that lasts longer than the four years they will play for him. I still connect with him regularly and that’s something I have always appreciated about him. 5+ years out of college and he is still calling me to check up to make sure I’m doing well. He will hold his players accountable and help them unlock their full potential.”
Andy Gibbons, Former Head Football Coach at Knox College: “From the day Aaron walked in the door as a first-year running back from Aledo he had a different way about him. I could tell right away he was a big-time student of the game and was going to be a coach. He challenged me all the time, in a good way, as a player and did a great job starting his career as a coach for us in 2008. I am so excited for Prairie Fire football and for Aaron.”
Brian Mistro, Head Football Coach at Jamestown University: “Aaron’s passion for his alma mater is without question. He will bring an energy and excitement to the football program as well as the campus community as a whole.
GHS bowlers ready for some pin action
By John Ring
GALESBURG - Coach Dave Sharp and his Silver Streak bowlers got the word with the rest of us that they are a “go” to start their season. It may be a little late, there may be little notice but Sharp and his Streaks are ready for some action in the lanes.
Galesburg takes on the Moline Maroons on the road next Tuesday and then competes against Rock Island on Wednesday. Thus, they are the first Silver Streak team to be in action since October 2020. That seems like such a long time ago.
As we did in an article previously here at The Burg, the Streaks numbers for the team—which started off very high at 17—has been trimmed down to 9.
“We lost quite a few due to the grades and the remote learning was difficult for them to adjust to, plus some of the parents are nervous which is understandable as well,” said Coach Sharp. “It makes a difference for us because normally, when you have a varsity contest against Rock island, you field your top six bowlers. In our case, we have four very good bowlers, a fifth one who is good and then we have a drop off so it makes it harder, especially against a team like Rock Island.”
“This whole situation has been hard for us, like it has for many teams,” continued the Streaks coach. “We’re trying to build a program and we get kids to come out to learn a sport and compete and get better. That’s what it takes and you make progress like that. The other thing is we really had a good possibility of sending two to three players to State this year and we also had a good chance to advance as a team to the Sectionals. That would have been a big deal for our team.”
Coach Sharp is scrambling to even getting the materials needed to clean the balls for his team.
“The condition of the ball is huge in bowling. It needs to be clean but finding the material to do that is difficult locally. So I’ll be going to the Quad Cities this weekend hopeful to get what we need.”
“Still, the team is excited. They’re ready to bowl and compete and build on what we have done the last few seasons and that’s to advance and to win and have some fun. We’ve had a lot of talent come together for the Streaks the last few years and we sure would like to build on that.”
The Streaks’ home meets will be at Abbe Lanes in Abingdon, as Northgate has been shut down for quite a while. Fortunately, the owners at Abbe Lanes have been incredibly receptive to host the Silver Streaks and their events.