Former Morton coach has Olympia football where it hasn't been in almost four decades

Adam Duvall
Journal Star
Morton coach Eric Lyons talks with quarterback Jake Starkey during a 2014 game at Morton High School.

Eric Lyons has brought a winner to an Olympia community long starving for a good football team.

The former Morton coach leads the No. 15 Spartans (7-4) into a 2 p.m. Saturday Class 3A quarterfinal against visiting third-seed Williamsville (10-1). Olympia is in the quarterfinals for the first time in 37 years.

“We kind of expected to be able to play at this level all year,” Lyons said. “We’ve felt like we’ve always had the potential to do this, but I think we’re finally starting to realize that we are really capable of it.”

When Lyons was hired five years ago, he inherited a program on an 18-game losing streak. He soon discovered there were no signs of support for football in a district encompassing the towns of Stanford, Hopedale, Minier, Armington, Waynesville, Atlanta, Danvers and McLean.

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Not even an Oly football t-shirt.

“I didn’t even know if they existed to be honest with you,” he said with a laugh.

Now, Lyons can’t even go to the gas station without someone representing the Spartans in their signature Columbia blue, navy and white school colors.

“It’s really rewarding to see how the community is rallying behind this team,” Lyons said, “and how excited they are for the future of Olympia football.”

Lyons came to Oly after a two-year stop as an assistant at Bloomington under Joe Walters, following a three-year stint at Morton. Walters, the former Peoria Notre Dame coach, displayed the special ability to reach his players on another level, according to Lyons.

In turn, Lyons has created a brotherhood at Olympia where it is a family-type atmosphere in which everyone trusts each other.

“I really feel like this team,” Lyons said, “they feel that way.”

But Walters isn’t the only one that has impacted Lyons on his coaching journey.

His dad, John Lyons, coached Atwood-Hammond to the 1980 Class 1A state championship. The younger Lyons played for Darrell Crouch at Eureka College, then learned from the likes of Normal Community state title coaches Hud Venerable and Terry McCombs.

He then spent six seasons with Dusty Burk at Normal U-High.

“You take pieces from everybody you work with along the way,” Eric Lyons said. “Good coaches are good coaches no matter what the level they are. There’s unique challenges everywhere you go. But at the end of the day, it comes down to getting kids to believe in themselves.”

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His team has that faith and has become the talk of the 3A playoffs.

Olympia, which led at halftime in every game but one during its 5-4 regular season, is the lone 15 seed left in the playoffs, having built momentum from a playoff-earning Week 9 win over Petersburg PORTA. This has translated into a 32-21 first-round upset over No. 2 Benton, then last week’s 60-28 victory against old Illini Prairie Conference foe and seventh-seeded St. Joseph-Ogden.

“It may be cliché to say it, but we’re playing our best football at the right time,” Lyons said.

A complex offense — the flexbone — has become Oly’s bread and butter. Former Georgia Tech and Navy coach Paul Johnson was the architect of this triple option-based scheme that helped the Spartans produce a season-best 519 rushing yards in the second round.

Consulting with Brad Seaburg of reigning Class 6A state champion Cary-Grove on the flexbone, as well as coaches Kenny Wheaton and Kevin Chism from Division II Harding in Arkansas. has led to Lyons consistently fine-tuning his approach.

“We’ve got a little better at it every year we’ve ran it here,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about how to coach the details of it. It’s made us tremendously better offensively.”

And the rushing numbers don’t lie for the Spartans, who had 18 starters back from last year. Quarterback Zach Keedy (887 yards, 15 touchdowns), fullback Kade Lollar (798 yards) and slotback Reygan Sitton (786 yards, 11 TDs) can get the ball at any time and all be threats to score.

This, though, is increasingly difficult having already faced Sangamo Conference opponent Williamsville on Sept. 16. The Bullets, who cruised to a 42-14 win, already have Oly on film but so do the Spartans.

“You have the benefit of retrospect any time you lose,” Lyons said. “It takes you to take a little harder look at yourself and what went wrong. Maybe there’s a little advantage in that.”

Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.