By Marty Farmer
When the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team convened for its team photo last week, the mood among the players was light and convivial with plenty of joking around. When the photographer was ready to take the photo, however, head coach John Hoerster shouted to the players, "quiet," and the Huskies instantly transformed into a picture of concentration.
The Huskies (7-4 in 2012) employ a similar approach on the gridiron: all business within the framework of fun.
"We want our kids to have fun and be really excited about football," Hoerster said. "Whether we're in practice or going over our schemes, we strive to make everything high energy and up-tempo for our players. The goal is to make things as simple as possible so our players can instinctively fly around the field."
OPRF certainly boasts speed to burn on offense. 6-foot-1, 180-pound junior Lloyd Yates is the Huskies' elusive and strong-armed quarterback poised for another stellar campaign.
"I worked with coach Jeff Christiansen in his Throw It Deep program during the summer," Yates said. "I'm learning how to be more comfortable running an offense and also my ability to pass the ball since we're going to be doing that more this season.
"We're really getting after it this year. I think it's more intense and competitive leading into this season, which is a big step toward achieving our goals of winning conference and making a deep run in the state playoffs."
Senior running backs Jamal Baggett and Mike Hayden comprise a formidable 1-2 punch on the ground. Baggett, who is also a starting cornerback for OPRF, has already received nine Division I scholarship offers for football. Baggett is a prolific runner on the OPRF track team as well.
"I've been working on my reads and cuts and also catching the ball in space," Baggett said. "There's a real family atmosphere [at OPRF] and guys around the football program really care about what we're building here. Coach Hoerster has done a great job encouraging that feeling among the players."
On the perimeter, senior captain/wide receiver Ryan Chancellor and Jeremy Moore along with Baggett and Hayden are all viable targets for Yates in the Huskies' spread option offense. The Huskies' lone returning starter along the offensive line, Josh Hale (6-3, 230), will join forces with a pair of promising junior tackles in Adam Lemke-Bell (6-4, 240) and Phil Burton (6-4, 220).
Nose guard Emonte Logan and defensive end Andre Lee anchor the defensive front, while Manny Renteria leads a talented but inexperienced linebacking corps. The secondary appears set with returners Xavier Rowe, Justin Starks and Baggett. Defensive lineman/linebacker Allen Stallings and linebacker Marty McAndrews are pegged as other key contributors for the OPRF defense.
In the annually brutal West Suburban (Silver) Conference, Class 7A defending state champion Glenbard West is deservedly the preseason league favorite, with Hinsdale Central, Downers Grove North, Lyons Township and OPRF all in hot pursuit of the highly regarded Hilltoppers.
"I was in the Chicago Catholic League for 10 years so I know about being part of a great conference," said Hoerster, who previously coached at Mount Carmel. "I think the West Suburban Silver is as good as any league top to bottom in the state. There are no weeks off, but until something changes Glenbard West is the team to beat."
Building off the momentum of last season, the OPRF football program is flourishing with a higher turnout of players across the board (including 85 at the freshmen level) reinforcing the renewed interest and palpable buzz around the program.
"The fun thing about having some good wins and exciting games is people want to be a part of OPRF football," Hoerster said. "We're putting an enthusiastic team on the field at a stadium full of tradition. It's good for our school and community when OPRF football has some excitement and success."