O captain, my captain: Muegge’s leadership will be critical in Mustangs’ pursuit of playoff berth


Unity-Payson defensive tackle Brady Muegge flatens a Beardstown ball carrier during a game last fall in Mendon, Ill. | Photo courtesy Sarah Vest Donley

MENDON, Ill. — Brady Muegge admits he was a little surprised as a junior last fall to be voted a captain for the Unity-Payson football team, an honor often reserved for seniors.

His coach, Matt Woodworth, wasn’t.

“He’s a leader on our team,” Woodworth said of the offense and defensive lineman who has started since his freshman season. “He works hard, is a very disciplined player and has a get-after-it mentality when he straps the pads on.

“He’s strong, he’s not going to be pushed around and he doesn’t like losing.”

Muegge’s leadership qualities will be in demand once again this season as Unity-Payson, with only eight seniors and nine juniors on the roster, aims for its fourth straight playoff appearance and first Western Illinois Valley Conference North title since 2016.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pounder anchors an offensive line from his left guard spot that also includes other senior returnees Ethan Voss and Cage Thompson. Those three also will be fixtures on the defensive front, where Muegge plays nose tackle.

Only three other positions on offense and two on defense will be manned by returning starters. Newcomers will be put to the test early, with a trip to Greenfield-Northwestern — seen as a team to beat in the WIVC South — the second week of the season and a home game against reigning WIVC North champion Camp Point Central in Week 4.

Notably, the Mustangs will be without Bryan Dieker, who graduated. He accounted for 1,466 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing and receiving combined on offense and led the team with 112 tackles on defense a year ago.

Quarterback Ryle Duke also graduated. He ran for 431 yards and threw for 849 more last season, resulting in a combined 20 scores. Junior Conner Howell and sophomore Sawyer Allen are in a spirited preseason battle to replace him.

However, experience and stability along the offensive and defensive lines should serve as a security blanket of sorts for players who will be stepping into new roles on both sides of the ball.

“It puts an extra weight on your shoulders to help teach these younger kids how to get things done,” said Muegge, a first team all-WIVC North selection on offense last season. “(Being a captain last year) was kinda unexpected. It added another sense of responsibility.

“As seniors this year, we recognize we have to help out a lot where we can. The guys up front are going to have to pick up some of the slack after losing Bryan and Ryle. We’re more experienced and we know we’re going to have to compete hard this year.

“The young guys are working hard and we’re getting things figured out. I’m more excited than anxious about the first game against West Central.”

Muegge says he enjoys playing defense “because you can be more aggressive.” He registered 50 tackles, including five for a loss, along with one sack and two forced fumbles last season for a Unity-Payson team that finished 6-4.

However, doing the dirty work in the trenches on offense to spring a back can also be gratifying.

“Pulling is one of the most fun things you can do as a lineman, to hit somebody who is not expecting it and blowing them out of the play,” he said with a laugh. 

“I like to think I’m aggressive off the ball. I get super locked-in mentally on what I have to do to help out the guys next to me. I’ve been working to get more explosiveness in my legs and to be more mobile, so I can move quicker along the line.”

An experienced line plays into what Woodworth wants to do offensively. Ball control and winning time of possession will be important ingredients if the Mustangs want to contend with some explosive teams in the WIVC North.

“There’s nothing more demoralizing for a defense than for an opponent to methodically drive the ball downfield and they know there’s nothing they can do to stop them and get off the field,” the coach said. “It’s a mental hurdle for high school kids.

“Brady has started for three years, Ethan for two years and Cage started last year. We have to fill some spots (on the line because of graduation), but the more we can hang onto the ball, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Despite its regular-season success, Unity-Payson has failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs in its last three trips. That’s something Muegge hopes to change this fall in his last go-around in high school football.

“Last year ended on a sour note,” he said, referring to a 33-14 road playoff loss to Knoxville. “Because of Covid my freshman year, it seems like high school has flown by. It goes faster than you realize. I’m going to soak it all in this year. I’m ready to go.”

Spoken like a leader.

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