Season on the brink: Galva finds new football coach after community callout

Matthew Wheaton
Galesburg Register-Mail

GALVA — Just over two weeks ago, Galva High School didn't have a head football coach, and Wildcats athletic director Adam Norway went into desperation mode.

It was coming to the point where if no one stepped up then the school wouldn't have fielded a team.

On Tuesday, July 19, Norway made a plea to the community on Galva's Facebook page to help with the search for the Wildcats' mentor.

And Mark Jeffrey answered it.

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The 45-year-old hasn't been officially hired yet, but Jeffrey supervised five days of camp last week. Galva's players only had those organized summer activities. Anything else football wise was done on their own.

The Wildcats went 0-9 in their first season of 8-man football in 2022. Before the switch, Galva joined forces with ROWVA and Williamsfield as the Mid-County Cougars for the 11-man version of the game.

Norway believes the unfamiliarity of 8-man provided an extra challenge in the search to replace Tyler Nichols, who was the Wildcats' head coach last fall. He stepped down due to the fact he's Kewanee Wetherfield's new principal.

Mark Jeffrey

"It was kind of radio silence for a long period of time. There just wasn’t a lot of interest, especially in the head job," Norway said Tuesday morning, while sitting inside his office. "I think a little bit of it has to do with the fact that it’s 8-man even though that’s actually a little bit easier to be creative with than 11-man football. It’s so new to schools in this area, and I think that prevented the search.

"We got to the point a few weeks ago where we basically just did an all-call to the community. We knew if we were going to have a team that we had to have a head coach. I don’t think people knew how dire the situation was," Norway added. “We got lucky. There was some desperation. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a desperate situation. Now, we’ve filled every coaching position.”

Jeffrey in charge of three Wildcats teams

Norway already was familiar with Jeffrey, and vise versa. Galva's tracksters will be guided by Jeffrey next spring, and it will be his first season in that role. This winter, he'll also coach the Wildcats' freshman/sophomore boys basketball team for the first time.

With three children and a wife at home, Jeffrey was a bit reluctant to take over Galva's football program. However, Jeffrey knew he was going to have players he liked, as he served as a member of the Wildcats' chain gang last fall.

“First of all, I think it’s an honor when someone considers you for a head coach position," Jeffrey said. "I talked to my wife about it, of course, and it wasn't about the time for me. I just really wanted to see the football program thrive.

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"I was on the chain gang last year, and I saw those boys stick it out the whole season. Nobody quit. Nobody gripped," Jeffrey added. "I was impressed by that and was hoping deep down there was a way I could coach those guys because those are the type of guys that I like to coach.

“I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”

Jeffrey is 'unbelievably positive'

Jeffrey hasn't served as a coach on any level since before the coronavirus pandemic, but he's got plenty of experience.

Jeffrey began coaching football in 2000, and he served as an assistant for the Cougars of Mid-County for six seasons (2011-17.) He coached Junior Football League players after that for three seasons before taking a break.

"I’ve coached at pretty much every level," said Jeffrey, who lives in Galva and is a teacher at ExCEL School in Atkinson.

And Norway likes the mindset Jeffrey brings.

“He’s unbelievably positive. I’ve never met anybody more positive than Mark Jeffrey and I know our principal and anybody in this building would attest to it," Norway said. "He knows the constraints of a small school and a small team but he’s very very motivated to make it work for us.

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“Mark’s motto is kind of ‘I don’t know how it’s going to work and I don’t know how I’m going to get there but we’re going to do it,'" Norway added. "He always says that.

"He’s going to be a great role model for the kids.”

How did Galva's camp go?

Just like every other football team in the state, the Wildcats will attend their first official day of practice in the 2022 season on Monday, Aug. 8. They'll have an added challenge than some of their foes may have due to the limited summer.

However, Jeffrey liked what he saw last week in camp.

“They’re all in. Any type of situation there are good parts and bad parts but we had guys that were all in," Jeffrey said. "They mean business. They’re out there because they really want to be there. I think that is the most favorable thing to me. I’m looking for guys that are coachable and guys that have a why. They aren't going to leave when things get bad. They have a purpose for being there.”

Galva's season opener will take place Friday, Aug. 26 in a road contest against Ridgewood in Cambridge. It's the first time the Spartans will take the gridiron without 11 starters, as Ridgewood will partake in 8-man football for at least the next two seasons.

8-man football 'future' for small towns

Twenty nine Illinois high schools will field 8-man squads in 2022, and they'll play in five new conferences set up by the Illinois High School Association. The Wildcats are members of the Central 2, as are the Spartans. Bushnell-Prairie City, Peoria Heights, West Central and West Prairie round out the league.

Before this fall, those who fielded 8-man teams did so as members of the Illinois 8-Man Football Association. More schools are leaning toward the version of football due to a limited number of student-athletes.

“When you’re in a small town, I think that’s just the future of football. To me, you want to get in before they make you get in," Jeffrey said. "It was getting to a point where we couldn’t compete in 11-man football. I feel like we can compete in 8-man."

8-man 'faster pace' than 11

In 8-man football, fields are 80 yards long and 40 yards wide. Teams have a maximum of 25 players on their rosters. Each squad starts games on its own 20-yard line and quarters last eight minutes. Major penalties are 10 yards in 8-man and 15 in 11-man.

"8-man is definitely more offensive based and it opens things up to a much broader passing game. I think that intimidates anybody — kids or adults — who just don’t understand it’s not tremendously different than 11-man. It just suits the smaller schools and their needs," Norway said. "Schemes and methods change quickly in 8-man. I don’t think anybody is an expert on it by any means.

"The team we had last year they found it to be a lot of fun. They thought the game was a little more open," Norway added. "It was a faster pace. The pace of the game was a little quicker than they were used to or what they know in 11-man."

"What I like about it is it’s more strategic," Jeffrey said of 8-man football. "It’s up to the coaches to find the strengths and weaknesses of the other team."

Galva's 2022 schedule

Fri., Aug. 26 at Ridgewood, 7 p.m.

Thu., Sept. 1 vs Peoria Heights, 6 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 10 vs Bushnell-Prairie City, 11 a.m.

Fri., Sept. 16 at Metro-East Lutheran, 7 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 24 at Parkview Christian Academy, Noon

Fri., Sept. 30 vs West Prairie, 6 p.m.

Fri., Oct. 7 at Franklin Center, 7 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 15 at West Central, 1 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 22 at Farmer City/Blue Ridge, TBD

Matthew Wheaton can be reached at (309) 315-6073 or at Follow him on Twitter @matthewlwheaton